A four-part series featuring memories from black Memphians who lived through the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Cherryl Pigues Crite: My name is Cherryl Pigues Crite. I am the school crossing guard coordinator for Memphis Police Department.
Wendi C. Thomas: I’m Wendi Thomas, and I’m the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. We’re talking to people who have memories of 1968, the spring when Dr. King was here in Memphis. I understand that you participated in the Black Mondays. What were Black Mondays?
The Black Mondays were when we did not go to school in support of Dr. Martin Luther King when he was assassinated. I just knew that that’s what we could do as young people in support of what he was doing and what he was about. About that time, I just knew that he was here; he was here to support the sanitation workers. But what we were doing, I didn’t realize the significance of it at all.
Where were you in school?
I was attending Humes Junior High. I was 13 years old, and I was in eighth grade. On the Mondays we didn’t go to school, my little crew, if you will, we would we would just kind of hang out. We will walk Downtown. We will watch the other people; the other children are high schoolers that were not in school. Why were they so, adamant, I guess I should say, about why we as African-Americans — or blacks, whatever you want to call it — could not have equal participation in what was happening at that particular time in our communities.
So, what do you mean equal participation?
Well, let me give you an example.
When I was in school, I was a brainiac. And I can remember my math teacher. Even though we all was in the same classroom, the Caucasians, say one particular Caucasian girl, I don’t remember her name, but she was always advanced and we were taking algebra. I can remember just like it was yesterday. She was always in advanced. She was doing math problems; she was way ahead of the class and this kind of thing. I guess I didn’t understand why she was doing something different than the rest of us.
And so, I asked my teacher plain as day — Mr. Love, that was his name — why was she, you know, not doing same work we were doing? And he said because she was smarter than us. I got offended. But I told him I could do the same thing that she can do.
So how did your teachers react to your not coming to school on Mondays?
They probably really didn’t care. Some of the teachers at that time lived in the same community we lived in. But mom thinks if they cared, then they probably would have asked us why were we not coming to school. But I don’t recall anybody ever asking why we didn’t come to school. I don’t recall ever asking my mom why were we not coming to school.
So where did you get this commitment to activism from? Where did that come from?
I can remember when I guess, I be like, 16, you know, 17? There was always a difference. And how my dad responded when he was around … I’m just going to say white folk. At that time, I guess I had learned how to drive, and my thing was I would tell him we don’t have to do day anymore. To me he was just not being treated, I guess, fairly. I’m like I didn’t I just didn’t like the way he was being treated by other people.
My thing was we’re not living in those times you know anymore. So, you don’t have to say, “No sir. Yes sir,” that kind of thing. You don’t have to bow down to people like that anymore. You know, and I mean I love this, though. I mean and you are a man. You got you six babies and a wife that you trying to feed. And so, I mean, I understand you need to work but you don’t have to just accept anything. And when I saw how he was being treated I just — I just … mmmm. [sigh]
So, I believe that’s where it initially came from. I was attending St. James AME Church during that time period, and I’ll never forget Dr. Reverend H.L. Stocks was our pastor. Our slogan was “You are somebody.” He would tell it to everybody; young, old, didn’t even matter. He had respect for all people and love all people.
Were your parents involved in the movement at all?
My mom and my dad were very involved when Dr. Martin Luther King came to the city. My mom and my dad would go to hear him speak. My mom and dad would participate in the marches. I can even remember at that time, we had party-line telephones, and my mom’s responsibility was to call people and let people know where he was, where Dr. Martin Luther King was going to be, what time he was going to be there and try to encourage the community to come out and support him in his efforts.
Even though neither one of my parents, you know, we’re not part of the sanitation. They were not sanitation workers, I should say, but it still was about equal rights. It was about equal pay. It was still about respect. You know, and so that’s what my parents did. They supported him and they did what they could.
I can remember plain as day where I was when Dr. Martin Luther King as killed. When he came across the news media. I was at 923 Thomas St. right across from Fire Station №6 when he came across the news that he had been shot. You know later on, they didn’t identify that he had passed away. But, I mean it was like OK, what do we do now? You know, even though I was a kid. Then my parents came. I was at my aunt’s house and my parents came, and I was just like OK, what are we going to do? Did you know? Did you know? Did you see the news?
If Dr. King came back today, where would I take him? I’d probably take him back to where I grew up. Probably back to North Memphis. I grew up in Chelsea. Forestry Bell water area. And I would let him see that even though there’s still poverty here, there still has been some good things that have happened; I know there are a lot of things that have happened in terms of like, we got the Riverfront District, we got the Overton Square thing, we got the Civil Rights Museum. But I would want him understand that we’re still struggling, and some of us are still looking for that leadership.
I would say in the ’hood because some of us are still in the ’hood. Some of us have not moved on since his death, but then there are some good things that have happened in our communities. But if you look across the street, some of us are still there waiting for the Great White Hope to show up.
So, what do you think Memphis has done with King’s sacrifice?
I believe what Memphis has done with King’s sacrifices — I want to say sat on it. I want to say sat on it because some of us are afraid to move forward, probably because we are afraid of taking that leadership role. … That we need to to turn our community around. The millennials seem to get it. They seem to be vocal. The older folk like me some of us think that we’ve done our due diligence.
Some of the things that I see are very disheartening. No, I can’t solve everything. I think I believe that each person just get their one little piece and work on their one little piece. And they put the pieces together, we can move our community forward. But then we’re just sitting, just flatlined.
What’s your little piece?
My little piece is to help women understand that they need to work together. We all don’t have to be leaders. Just take whatever your little resource is, connect it with somebody else’s little resource and work on it and come together as a unit. Some of us have become so educated or we’re making dollars, and we moved across the street. We forget to look back across the street, that this is where you were. You have not always had that silver spoon in your mouth if you will? So, my piece is to help us understand you and I can, we can, do this if we put our resources to together.
What do you think King would think about the wages being paid to the workers today? Not even just sanitation workers but just workers broadly?
I believe that if Dr. Martin Luther King knew how poorly we were being paid, he probably would be, probably, quite adamant. And I think he’s probably rolling over in his grave now. You know, because I mean he lost his life here in our city, and yet we have people not making decent wages. Livable wages.
For example the Fight for $15: I am in total support of that. The onlookers, if you will, seem to think that the fast-food workers to waitresses are the people that are working in that service industry do not deserve to be paid $15 an hour. But if you do the math, it’s not just them; they just happened to be the voice, the mouthpiece, the talking about the $15 an hour.
Now if you do the math there are a lot of us that’s barely making $15 an hour, and I have no problem saying, me. I am not in that industry, but I know how I struggle on $15 an hour, and I’m just taking care of me. So, I can only imagine a mom taking care of babies or a dad that’s responsible for children and making $15 an hour. That is not a lot of money! That’s what maybe $30-, $32,000 thousand a year?
When you have to be responsible for a family, $15 an hour is not a lot of money. I look at it like back when Martin Luther King was here. My mom making a $1.60 an hour, feeding six kids. Can you imagine that was what, in ’68, ’67-‘68 during that time frame? And I don’t remember how old she was. But my mom did eventually go back to school get her degree. And she did become a teacher. But imagine taking care of kids back then for a $1.60 an hour. I equate that to the $15 an hour now. You are basically making the same amount of money.
And your dad was working.
My dad was. My dad was working. And I guess you’d say I was blessed because both my parents were in the household. My dad was working, and he was making less than my mom and my mom was bringing home most of the month. And I can remember rent was $60 a month, and they was struggling to pay the $60.
Wow. So, some things for workers don’t sound like they’ve changed a lot, for some workers anyway?
Well, when you look at it, no. No, things have not changed.
So, what gives you hope?
What gives me hope is that there are a lot of people that want to see our community change. There are a lot of people that are doing what we call ‘the work” in our community. There are a lot of people that realize they have a commitment, to do the work if they want to see a change. And I do realize that there are people that don’t have the voice.
I don’t have a problem being a voice speaking up. Used to be a time when I probably wouldn’t. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize I have to be committed and I am committed. And are we going to see a change tomorrow? No, we’re not. If I want to see a change in my community, I got to be willing to sacrifice, and that, I don’t mind. Don’t worry. Dr. Martin Luther King did it. He laid his life on the line.
This interview was coordinated and edited by Wendi C. Thomas, transcribed by Marise Tuttle and produced by Jennifer Sadler. For a transcribed version of this interview, go to MLK50.com. Read more about this moment in Memphis on our website and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @MLK50Memphis?
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.