by Laura Faith Kebede —
Transfixed by a microfilm slide on the fourth floor of Memphis’ central library, Adam Sadberry had never felt so close to his grandfather, a stalwart in the Black press who died decades before he was born.
Ever since Sadberry moved to the city in 2019 as the acting principal flute with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, he made it a habit to visit the library and scroll through old newspaper clippings.
They were filled with words written by his grandfather L. Alex Wilson, one of the first editors of the Tri-State Defender.
His grandmother, Emogene Wilson, used to tell Sadberry that he was just like his grandfather.
When he was passionate about something, he would throw himself into it and shut out the rest of the world until he accomplished what he set out to do.
Sadberry’s passion now: Amplify L. Alex Wilson’s largely forgotten legacy as a tenacious journalist and the man who refused to run when a white mob attacked while he covered the historic integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.
Photos of the beating ran on the front page of the New York Times and some believe the shocking images, in part, urged President Eisenhower to take action.
And on that microfilm slide, Sadberry had found the Tri-State Defender column Wilson published the day after.
“I decided not to run. If I were to be beaten, I’d take it walking if I could – not running,” the column read. “Members of the red-blooded democracy loving mob acted swiftly. They sensed (I realize now) my determination…
“Strangely, the vision of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students, flashed before me as she with dignity strode through a jeering, hooting gauntlet of segregationists several days ago.”
Sadberry said reading the column was an out-of-body experience.
“I felt like I was being sucked into literally the Civil Rights Movement, like I was there with him experiencing the same fear and chaos that he was,” Sadberry said.
The discoveries over the past two years have given Sadberry inspiration when he needed it most and their telling by Sadberry comes as The New Tri-State Defender kicks off a year-long celebration of its 70th anniversary. The newspaper’s first edition was distributed during the first week of November 1951.
For years, Sadberry felt he didn’t belong as a Black man in the predominantly white classical music industry. But learning about his grandfather’s courage and determination has given him confidence to use his music as a tool to highlight overlooked stories of Black accomplishment.
“I’m still just in disbelief at the coincidence of me winning a job with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra while we were in the middle of the next civil rights movement … after my grandfather had been so heavily involved in the first one,” Sadberry said.
“And to see his work and really feel what he felt in a new context in just a modern-day light was pretty jaw dropping – and has me fueled to keep on,” he said.
In honor of Wilson, Sadberry will perform classical songs by pioneering Black composers Jan. 15 at Crosstown Theater. Photos of his grandfather and projections of his work covering the Civil Rights Movement will scroll in the background.
‘Aggressive, courageous and effective’ journalist
Wilson was born March 30, 1909 in Orlando, Florida. When he was a young man, he came across the Ku Klux Klan marching in his hometown.
He took off running. But he promised himself that if he had another opportunity, he wouldn’t run again, a former colleague Moses Newson recalled years later in a news article said.
He later became a Marine and went to Korea as a war correspondent, where he won the highest award in the Black press for feature writing.
In 1955, the nation’s leading Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, sent him to Memphis to run its fledgling Southern chapter, the Tri-State Defender, as Black people galvanized opposition to racial segregation laws.
Wilson not only became an indispensable voice in analyzing Memphis news, but a leading voice in telling the national story of the Civil Rights Movement, said Hank Klibanoff, a co-author of “The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.”
“Beyond doubt, L. Alex Wilson was one of the absolute most aggressive, courageous and effective journalists who covered civil rights,” Klibanoff said.
Wilson traveled to Sumner, Mississippi to cover the trial of Emmett Till’s accused murderers, and even found and interviewed a witness the white press couldn’t locate.
A year later, he was on the frontlines of sharing the stories of the thousands of Black Alabamians who boycotted segregated buses.
By the time the spotlight of the civil rights struggle turned to nine Black students at Central High School in Little Rock in 1957, Wilson was a leading documenter of the movement.
While on his way to the high school’s entrance to await the students’ arrival on Sept. 23, a throng of angry white people blocked his path.
The other Black journalists retreated. But Wilson, 6 feet, 3 inches tall in a suit and fedora, kept walking.
Members of the mob began to kick and push him down. One white man jumped on his back and choked him.
“And every time he hit the ground, he stood, took a breath and got back up,” Klibanoff said. “He creased his hat, put it back on, and kept walking.”
Aggravated by Wilson’s calm, the mob continued to take turns attacking him. A white woman cried with pity nearby, but offered no assistance, Wilson wrote.
Finally, one white man hit Wilson on the head with a brick.
“He fell like a tree,” said James Hicks, who recalled the attack in the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” Eventually, Wilson made it out of their grasp.
Left behind in Memphis was 20-year-old Dorothy Gilliam, who later became the first Black woman at the Washington Post. Wilson had hired her as a rookie reporter and coached her to “write with precision and never to overlook the ironies.”
As she was making routine phone calls for her late shift, she caught a glimpse of the office’s television and watched footage of Wilson’s beating in horror.
“His thing was almost like, I’d rather be dead and scared,” said Gilliam, who included Wilson in her 2019 memoir “Trailblazer.”
“Of course, he didn’t want to die. But he would not give those screaming bigots the joy of seeing him run.”
“They kept screaming, ‘Run, damn you, run,’” she continued. “Because… that was the image they wanted to have – that Black people were fearful.”
Images of the beating appeared across the nation. Letters poured into the Tri-State Defender from Black and white supporters nationwide.
The newspaper’s staff included a letter of their own, praising his “iron grit that awes and awakens us.”
But Wilson never was the same after the attack. He suffered from headaches and developed Parkinson’s disease, yet still managed to move back to Chicago as top editor of the Chicago Defender.
He died three years after the assault at the age of 51 on Oct. 11, 1960.
Wilson is buried in Memphis’ historic Elmwood Cemetery alongside his wife, Emogene, who died on Christmas Day 2019.
On a recent visit to Wilson’s gravesite, Sadberry brought his flute and played “Going Home” – the same song he played for his grandmother in her final days.
A Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, wrote the song, but it was famously sung by Black baritone and political activist Paul Robeson at Carnegie Hall in 1958.
The song is an example of the kind of storytelling Sadberry wants to highlight in his music since reading his grandfather’s work. He calls it “musical journalism.”
Poring through Wilson’s sharp commentary on racial inequity, Sadberry recognized their shared desire for excellence, but felt he had more to live up to in how he used his career to affect change.
“My grandfather’s legacy has affected me in the sense that I no longer play the flute to play the flute,” he said. “I play it with a mission to tell stories and share information and to bring relevance to my work.”
That desire sharpened last summer during the widespread protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s death.
“I want this to be something that is honest and authentic and rooted in something bigger than myself,” he said.
One of the songs Sadberry plans to include in his January tribute is “Mother and Child” by William Grant Still. Known as the “Dean of African-American composers,” Still broke a lot of barriers in the classical world while also arranging songs for artists such as blues legend W.C. Handy.
Growing up in Montgomery, Texas, a mostly white town north of Houston, Sadberry felt like he had to be a perfectionist on and off the stage in order to assimilate and be accepted.
Learning about his grandfather’s strong sense of identity and refusal to shrink back in the face of opposition solidified Sadberry’s resolve.
“I was trying to make people forget, in the sense, that I was Black so I could blend in,” he said. “But now it’s they’re getting the full package and the full package alone.”
Sadberry hopes to finish Wilson’s biography from the writings his grandmother collected. And while Sadberry never met his grandfather, he clings to his immortal words in the pages of the Tri-State Defender as a window into his heart.
And that is enough to transform him.
For more information on Adam Sadberry’s upcoming tribute concert to his grandfather, L. Alex Wilson, visit: click here.