““They’ve killed my man.”
The Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Sr. recalled the words he murmured after finding out that his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had been shot.
“I knew he was dead immediately after they said he’d been hit.”
Netters, who is the longest serving pastor of a single church in Memphis, was also one of Memphis’ first African-American city councilmen. The day Dr. King was assassinated, he and nine other council members had gotten together to come up with an agreement that would satisfy the demands of striking sanitation workers.
The strike was the reason Dr. King had come to Memphis. He’d planned to speak on behalf of the workers, who were asking for higher wages and better working conditions. Netters also had been working with the employees since taking office in 1968. He said what he and the other council members had discussed on the ninth floor of the Claridge Hotel only moments before Dr. King was shot could have changed everything.
“We had come to resolution to give the sanitation workers exactly what they’d asked for. That’s why Doctor King had come, and we’d gotten a resolution …” his voice trailed off as he remembered the details of that day.
It’s a resolve that Dr. King would never know, and one that changed after his untimely death.
“After he got shot, some of the white council members decided that they didn’t want to follow through with the resolution in fear of racial tensions,” Netter recalled. “It was like a double hurt for me.”
Netters said it took him a while to recover from the hurt and disappointment. To get back up, he drew from the moment he first saw Dr. King, on Aug. 28, 1963. It was on that day that Netters stood on stage as the civil rights leader delivered his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech.
“As I stood there listening to it, I had a strange power that came over me. I left in awe.”
Netters was a teacher in Memphis City Schools during that time. His passion for education and equality led him to activism, where he traveled to Washington, D.C., to assist with the March on Washington. There, he was able to stand on stage as Dr. King recited what would become one of the most groundbreaking speeches in history.
“He was my hero, my role model,” Netters said.
Inspired by what he had heard that day, he came back to Memphis energized and ready to spark change. Less than a year later he and six others initiated bus sit-ins, where they would become the first group in the city arrested during demonstrations.
“We got 500 ministers committed to helping us with the sit-ins and walks,” Netters chuckled, before adding that only two people showed up. “I was one of them.” Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was the other.
He chalked up the lack of participation to the fear that came with speaking out against inequality during that time.
Netters and Kyles were able to convince four more people to join them that morning. The six men landed in jail, but it wasn’t in vain. Two weeks later, buses were integrated in the city. Soon after, local restaurants and hotels were also unified.
Netters’ determination to make an impact in the city cultivated with time, eventually leading him into politics. He, alongside Rev. J.O. Patterson and Fred Davis, would become one of the first African-Americans to hold a seat in Memphis city government.
“He was a very capable councilman,” Davis said about his longtime friend. “I always say he wasn’t just an activist but a gentleman. He was the one who mitigated when council members were at odds.”
Netters later pivoted his position within city government. He became an administrative assistant to then-Mayor J. Wyeth Chandler, where he continued his fight for equal rights.
“I went on to try to get as many blacks in city government jobs as possible … and it worked,” he laughed. “One day the mayor came up to me and said that when he got in office, there were only white employees, now everyone is black.”
While Netters said he isn’t sure the exact number of African-Americans he helped get into city government, he believes that it was enough to help change the trajectory of politics in Memphis.
Now 90, Netters said he no longer dabbles directly in legislation but continues to remain a voice in the fight for equality.
“I think we have come a great and marvelous distance since Doctor King’s death, but we haven’t come far enough,” he said. “There are enough blacks in high places now that they can open doors for other blacks in Memphis.”
He offered advice to those in power.
“We can’t just do it by marching like we used to. We also have to use our powers, at jobs and in political offices. We have to use our positions to advance blacks to higher positions.”
Netters, who has served as the pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood for more than 60 years, will be stepping down this year, but he said his fight for equality is far from over.
“I’m going to be retiring soon,” he paused and took a deep breath. “But I’ve made up my mind that I want to spend the rest of my time here on earth bringing people of all races and backgrounds together. I think I was mandated to do that.”