For many 83-year-olds, some moments stay for a lifetime. Vivid memories rush back, filled with all the color and emotion of that moment. For Fred L. Davis, historic snippets of life 50 years ago remain present in his psyche, an intriguing catalog of dramatic recall he summons at will.
There is the successful insurance agency named for him. Then, there is that pivotal role he played in launching the city’s council form of government. And, there is the “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” chapter of Davis’ life – all three turning 50 simultaneously.
“Back there in 1967, the Shelby County Democratic Club railed against the lack of black representation in government,” said Davis. “There were five commissioners in city government, and not a one was black or had ever been black – Commissioner of Health, Commissioner of Fire and Police, Commissioner of Public Works, Commissioner of Public Service, and the Commissioner of Transportation.
“We wanted to be represented in a city council form of government with districts, and the question was put to the people in a referendum. And the people voted ‘yes’ to change the commission to a mayor and city council.”
On Jan. 1, 1968, a mayor-council government was implemented, replacing a commission government that had been in place since 1909.
“A.W. Willis, Jesse Turner, Russell Sugarmon – we were all involved in that movement,” said Davis.
“Me and my wife took a map of the city of Memphis and laid it out on our dining room table, and we drew the lines of the districts – seven city districts. Two of ‘em were predominantly black. I took that map back to Sugarmon, and he took it to the city, and they were approved. For 12 years, we drew up the district lines, and they were approved.
“I won my district knocking on doors – black, white, everybody’s door. Orange Mound was my district. People knew who I was because I had been a serious volunteer, working with kids, young people, you know.
“So there I was in 1968, on the city council. And for five years, Public Works had clashed with the union. T.O. Jones had just decided that the sanitation workers had had enough, and they would go on strike.”
Two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck on Feb. 1, 1968. For Jones, a former-sanitation-worker-turned-union-organizer, this was the last straw in a pattern of neglect and abuse of black city employees. He called a meeting on Feb. 11 where more than 700 sanitation workers voted to strike. Memphis’ 1,300 sanitation workers, all African-American, officially went on strike.
The move gained the support of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the NAACP, prominent leaders in the religious community, and the city’s African-American population.
“Jim Lawson and Ben Hooks were a part of the religious community, and they asked Dr. King to come to Memphis and help,” said Davis. “They interrupted his work on the Poor People’s Campaign, and he came.”
By the beginning of March, local high school and college students, nearly a quarter of them white, were marching alongside garbage workers in daily marches; and more than 100 people, including several ministers, had been arrested.
“Dr. King came in late March. He had always preached non-violence in protesting, but a group of young, black guys called The Invaders started looting, and chaos just broke out. The police used tear gas and Mace on the non-violent marchers, and that ended in disaster
“I was right there. I saw it with my own eyes. Dr. King was very disappointed and returned home. But he was asked to come back, and he did. There was a second march on March 28th. It was non-violent and went completely according to plan. By this time, the strike was going on its second month.
“By April 4, a majority of us council members were up in a room at the Clarion Hotel, waiting for King’s people. We had voted to end the strike that day. It was all going to be over, and the workers would have won a victory. It was Jim Netters, J.O. Patterson, myself, and some other white council members who stood with us. There was a good spirit there, and we were happy about the strike ending.
“But while we were waiting, the phone rang, and whoever was on the other end just simply said, ‘Turn on the TV.’ ”
Davis goes silent, reliving the moment almost 50 years ago back in that hotel room. A balled-up handkerchief in his right hand dabs at the tears in his eyes and rubs quickly across his nose.
“That’s how we learned Doctor King had been shot. We just stopped. No one spoke. We were shocked, stunned. It was just abject sadness in that room. There was deep, deep sadness in all of us as we tried to process what was happening.
“After a while, we got up and went over to Mayor Henry Loeb’s office. He was clearly shaken. He asked Reverend Netters to pray, and Reverend Netters said, ‘Please don’t ask me to pray. I can’t pray right now.’ And he didn’t.”
The nightmare for some leaders was just beginning, including Davis.
“We began receiving death threats, my wife and my children,” Davis recalled. “There was a police car sitting right across the street from my insurance office, and another one sat in front of my house watching my wife and children. They never let us out of their sight.”
He wipes his eyes once again. “You can’t see the scars because they are inside.” IF YOU NEED A GRAY BREAK-UP ELEMENT IN PRINT, THIS IS A GOOD QUOTE TO HIGHLIGHT.
Looking to the future
For a man who began picking cotton in the third grade and has survived numerous death threats in the civil rights era, Davis is surprisingly cheerful and full of hope. He senses a bright future for “our people.”
His anti-sagging billboards against “black youth walking around with their behinds out” went viral and have been seen worldwide. Thousands of dollars were invested in the project.
“We just can’t let our children walk around like that and not say anything. The billboard was my megaphone.”
Dr. King’s next movement after civil rights was a war on poverty. His Poor Peoples’s Campaign was left adrift and incomplete after his untimely death.
Davis sees a great future for “black people once we realize some things.”
“We must learn that it is impossible to be poor and free at the same time,” said Davis. “You’re either one or the other.
“From the time I was in the third grade, I’ve had to work while I was going to school. I picked too much cotton and rode too many mules not to understand wealth. We were so poor that I can’t tell you how poor because the census bureau would render it obscene,” he quips, with a smile.
“We won’t overcome until we learn the difference between consuming and conserving,” said Davis. “In 1972, they wanted me to run for congress, before Harold Ford. I told them I couldn’t afford to run. I was told the campaign would be financed, and I wouldn’t have to worry about that. But I told them I can’t run unless I can finance my own campaign. I didn’t want anybody to come to me at election time and tell me to do something I didn’t want to do. I could tell ‘em to go to hell.”
“As a people, we have to become conservers and not consumers. The black dollar leaves our community immediately once we get ahold of them. We spend money on things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like. We must start being defined by what we own rather than what we owe.
“Once we learn how to be economically free, we will be free, indeed.”