John Greene knew about the march scheduled for March 28 — word on the street was that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be in town to lead it. But for whatever reason, Greene chose instead to go relax at “The Big M,” a popular restaurant/hangout spot owned by Melvin Bond, near the corner of what is now Danny Thomas Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive.
“Of course, you had Four-Way Grille and places like that,” said Greene, now 76. “But the Big M was actually the only prominent place that the Black people went to eat because they had a bar and they sold drinks and things like that.”
What none of the customers there that day knew was that the march had spiraled out of control. And when Memphis police officers showed up at The Big M — either trying to keep order, knock some heads, or both — it didn’t take long for violence to erupt, Greene said.
“They said, ‘You got five minutes to clear this place out,’” Greene said. “Then we said, ‘Well, why we got to leave? We’re not breaking any laws. We’re just sitting down eating dinner, having lunch.’
“Right then, those five minutes were up,” he recalled. “That’s when they pulled out the night sticks and started running us out of there.”
Memphis newspapers and TV stations had little coverage on what happened next. But it was front page news in that week’s edition of The Tri-State Defender: “COPS WAGE WAR ON BLACK COMMUNITY.” TSD General Manager W. A. Sengestacke witnessed a beatdown so brutal that it inspired an editorial:
“The assembled lounge patrons were young adults. They were primarily business and professional men and women. They were largely well-dressed, well-spoken, and well behaved. They were not participants in the looting and rioting. This was evidenced by their demeanor, location, situation and appearance. One glance would have told the officers that this was not a crowd of loitering Negro looters and rioters. These people were blocks away from the riot and even march scene. They had customarily assembled at the Lounge.
“Yet the armed, cursing and abusive officers swept down upon them as if they were assaulting an enemy bunker in Vietnam. They began ordering patrons out of the Lounge without explanation. They jumped on them with batons and Mace gas. They chased them down the street, knocking them down and kicking them. Obviously it wasn’t because of what these people had done . . . but because of what they are . . . Negroes.”
Greene said the situation was made worse by the fact that parking was so scarce at The Big M. It was normal for customers to block each other in because the lot was so small — on a regular day, when someone needed to leave, other drivers would just move their cars.
“Everybody was double parked,” he said. “You parked your car and then when another person would come, they would just pull right behind you. So the people who were there first were actually blocked in. My car was one of the ones that was blocked in.”
Meaning that on this day, that packed parking lot was a trap. People couldn’t duck nightsticks while trying to get in their cars to escape. Greene remembered the guy who had parked next to him that day.
“He had a convertible and he was parked on that front row, and he was actually in his car waiting to get out,” Greene said. “And they beat him terribly because he was parked right beside me.
“When I saw the paper the next day, he looked like he had a turban his head was all bandaged up from the beating he took,” Greene added. “Not that he was resisting, but he couldn’t physically move his car.
“Everybody who was in that area, the police, they beat them.”
Greene had seen enough and made the split-second decision to take off running, leaving his car behind.
“I was running for my life,” he said. “It wasn’t no ‘Stop!’ They didn’t say stop. Wasn’t no ‘Don’t run!’ None of that. They started whooping people. They wasn’t going to just hit you and just lock you up,” he continued. “They were going to beat you. I was running for dear life.”
Fortunately, Frank Buford, one of Greene’s friends, was southbound on Danny Thomas and saw his friend booking down the street.
“So he slowed down and rolled the window down on his car because he didn’t have time to open the door,” Greene said. “So I dove through the window of his car. The police was right behind me with a nightstick and he hit me across my legs, but I still was able to get away.”
Others were not so lucky. One man’s head had to be stitched and bandaged. Another man collapsed on the steps of The Tri-State Defender, which was not far from The Big M at the time. Most of the victims were men. “Didn’t that many women hang out there during the lunch hour,” Greene said.
Greene had escaped to Castalia with Buford, but he still had a problem. Not only was his car still at the restaurant, a curfew was in effect to deter further rioting. Trying to get his car and get home to his wife was dangerous and could have been deadly.
“You couldn’t get back out on the streets, so I couldn’t get back home,” he said. “So I had to call my wife and explain to her what had happened and told her I can’t make it home. ‘I want you to know that I’m okay, but I can’t make it home.’”
And now? Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ sits at the intersection, across from the old Universal Life Insurance building. “The Big M” was a tiny establishment, and the spot where the beatdown happened is now a grassy field between the church and Danny Thomas Boulevard. “It stayed there until urban renewal came through and cleared all that out,” Greene said as he retraced his steps.
But the incident left a mark on black folks in Memphis, Greene said.
“It confirmed what we already knew — as far as white people were concerned, you had to stay in your place, even though you’re not breaking any laws,” Greene reflected. “It showed that no matter how much education you got, you were still a second-class citizen. It wasn’t no sugarcoating it.”