Memphis political leaders remember the price their generation paid during the civil rights movement

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Mayor Henry Loeb was elected mayor of Memphis in 1968, conditions for black people in the city began to go downhill.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to grant African-Americans the right to vote. But in the South, those wishing to cast ballots were subjected to mistreatment and violence.

“You will never understand what it’s like to be black in a white society when you’re treated less than a human being,” State Rep. Johnnie Turner said.

Turner and others remember the emotional and physical brutality and despair of segregation of more than 50 years ago.

“Fought and died. People were met with all sorts of horrendous obstacles and terror to keep them away from the ballot box,” County Commissioner Walter Bailey said.

Photos that almost speak show the civil rights rights movement and how it helped change America one image at a time, images almost frozen in time.

But 50 years later, raw emotions still melt the heart and bring back to life memories of what many people fought for, marched for and died for.

“As I walked to the back of the bus, the anger and the agony and — what really capped it off — the white kids laughed,” Turner remembered. “They don’t know it, That’s when I said, if ever given the opportunity I will go, and when the sit-in movement came to Memphis, I already had my motivation.”

They are painful memories for a former bank teller, and school teacher turned to Memphis civil rights icon.

Turner marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and was there to hear his last speech in Memphis.

The Tennessee state representative recalls sitting on the back of a bus as a second grade student and the one encounter at Main and Gayoso that forever changed her.

“The whites got on and they sat down, and then this little white girl about my age got on and she said, ‘Mama look at all the niggers in the back,’ and that cut through me like an electric shock. All at once I said, ‘I’m sitting back here because I am black.'”

It was one defining moment in time that would later inspire her to be a part of sit-ins, fight against Jim Crow laws and fight for the right to vote in the South.

“That’s how we got started. I knew how important voting was because the decisions being made to keep us down were a result of laws,” she said.

The long march for civil rights had other foot soldiers. They also defined themselves as civil rights warriors and movement warriors.

“People took pride in standing in line in rural counties and subjected themselves in being fired as a result of white employees’ racial bent, imitidating them,” Bailey said.

“They faced that in small communities. They did it with pride. As a result we made progress, significant progress with the ballot. It was either the ballot or the bullet!”

Bailey and his late brother, Judge D’Army Bailey, were two young Memphians taking part in demonstrations and sit-ins during a culture for change.

“You become perpetually part of a struggle for improvement for your people and people in general,” Bailey said. “My brother and I always wanted to be part of an effort to improve the downtrodden and the working-class people.”

The Baileys, even during their years in college, wanted to use the ballot as a revolutionary tool for progress.

“The conditions were so oppressive and the ballot was the answer, as we thought, to condition improvement,” Bailey said. “You’re fighting for your rights with the ballot getting the right office holders in and voting for the right programs.”

The ballot in 1991 attracted more than 60 percent of black voters who helped Dr. Willie Herenton become Memphis’ first elected African-American mayor,
but in recent years, black voter turnout in Memphis has declined, especially after the election of President Barack Obama.

Some say apathy and complacency has set in for some voters.

“Until events become as such that people can really can feel the effects of setbacks and the regression of progress, it’s going to be difficult to get their attention to get them committed to the ballot,” Bailey said.

But today some say even if voters are committed to the ballot, there are possible new roadblocks, 50 years later.

Some Memphis lawmakers claim Tennessee’s strict voter ID law amounts to voter suppression and unfairly targets certain groups such as minorities.

“The voter suppression, the voter ID, as I said earlier, it’s just a means of intimidation,” Turner said. “You don’t have to have an ID to vote, a picture ID, because that excludes a number of people who are not eligible.”

Today the NAACP is trying to help educate black millennials about the value of voting.

“I think a lot of them  don’t realize people actually died for this right and for them to have this opportunity,” said Deidre Malone, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Malone says they’re launching a campaign with the National Civil Rights Museum called VIP901 — Voting Is Power.

“Some of them may not feel they’ve been discriminated against or had some of the obstacles some of us had in the past, but they have and they don’t realize that some of it may be due to racism, and electing people and paying attention to the process is important,” she said.

That process is ingrained ingrained in the soul of Johnnie Turner today just like it was 50 years ago.

“Somebody paid the price for you and voting was our weapon and voting was our tool. You can’t stop voting. If you allow me to vote and don’t pull any tricks, I can win this game. … Oh, President Obama is a prime example. That’s why we did it so there would be some more Jackie Robinsons and the first in their fields, but when you get to be the first, don’t be the only.”

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