A four-part series featuring memories from black Memphians who lived through the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: I’m Zandria Robinson, co-director of the Center for Southern Literary Arts in Memphis, Tennessee. I’m here to talk with my mom, Janice Robinson.
JANICE ROBINSON: I’m Janice Robinson. I’m a substitute teacher since 1988 in what is now Shelby County Schools.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: Hey, mom, how are you doing today?
JANICE ROBINSON: I’m alright. How are you?
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: I’m doing OK.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: Do you remember what it was like those weeks leading up to when King came to town the first time. What were you doing as a teen?
JANICE ROBINSON: Well, I was a sophomore at South High school. This strike had occurred before King came.
I’m assuming I don’t remember well, but I I’m assuming we weren’t getting any garbage picked up and the mayor was Henry Loeb. I do remember then how his face would turn red every time he was on TV talking about this strike.
When King chose to come here to Memphis, which you know was not part of his plan, when he came, I’m sure it was on the news, and he had a march Downtown, and vandals or somebody broke the windows out of a lot of the stores.
So the march was not successful. It turned into a riot, and they shut the city down that evening.
I remember thinking as a teenager and saying in my bedroom how I was so angry and hate I wish he had not come here. And the next week, when he came back because he wasn’t going to let that be part of his legacy, that it was an unsuccessful march, he was killed.
I cried. I cried because he was killed. But I cried more because I knew I had said something that was dumb and silly that he should not have come here. And when asked, now that I’m older, I realize that was his destiny.
He had to come here, and he was going to lose his life here. And for a long time I hated, as a Memphian, to say I was from Memphis because the first thing black people would say is “Oh yeah, the city where they killed Dr. King.” And so, it was a real painful to live with.
I know the day after his death, that Friday would have been a curfew day. Nobody — the city just shut down and we may have gone back to school the following Monday or Tuesday. I don’t remember anything about addressing it with teachers or students or school. There was no assembly about it.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: What were you mad about the curfew for?
JANICE ROBINSON: Because I couldn’t go outdoors and sit on the porch.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: Oh, you wanted to go out and sit on the porch?
JANICE ROBINSON: I mean, when they say curfew, they mean get inside of your house and don’t come out. And so I wasn’t going anywhere. There was nowhere to go.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: What were other folks saying about it? Were you talking to your friends about it about the curfew?
JANICE ROBINSON: No. Because, generally back then, your folks had one physical phone and no fancy features on it. They didn’t have all of that. So as a teenager you aren’t going to be tying up the phone talking to anybody about that you had a curfew. You just go in a house and be quiet.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: Knowing what you know now about King, what do you think he might think of Memphis today?
JANICE ROBINSON: Memphis is still a polarized city. Although we don’t have a garbage strike, and the workers did get more rights and I don’t think anybody’s lost their life in a truck again or anything like that, we are still segregated. They … we integrated South Side without busing. Busing occurred a year after I finished high school, which was after 1970.
So, they bus to integrate the city. But now people have moved further out and further away from the city. They live in what we call the municipals now, many of them, and these are people that would have been living in the city. It still strikes me strangely. He would still say we live in a segregated city, and we do.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: What do you think your work is now in service of fulfilling some of the unfinished portions of his legacy? You go into schools every single day. Been doing it for almost 30 years. All over the city. How do you feel that you were working to advance the goals that King came here to meet?
JANICE ROBINSON: As a substitute teacher? I confront students. I prefer high school students because they can at least somewhat understand what you’re talking about. I confront them every day about their laid-back unfocused approach. In fact, I asked them Are they aware of DUI?
I said some of you are suffering from IDU; insubordinate, disrespectful, unfocused and, of course, both of them can’t even say things smart behind that because if you’re not all three of those things, you’re at one of them and they’re unfocused. OK, you want to be insubordinate, that’s part of being a teenager you want to be disrespectful, that’s ugly.
You didn’t bring your home training in school. I never say children don’t have home-training. I said, “Oh, I see you left your home-training at home today. You left your manners there with it.
So, my focus is to help them stay focused, and I don’t know what Dr. King would say if he saw these students that it’s not every student, but it’s too many of them. They just mosey all along, and they’re obsessed with their phones.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: So, if you’re in the classroom, which you most likely will be on April 4, 2018 …
JANICE ROBINSON: Is that a weekday?
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: That’s a weekday. If you’re in the classroom on April 4, 2018 on this 50th anniversary, let’s say you’re subbing some 10th graders like you were in the 10th grade. Yes, your favorite, one of your favorite grades. What story will you tell them? What would you tell them?
JANICE ROBINSON: I will repeat what I said about not wanting King to come here and that I don’t remember anything about how I felt or what we did, or how we handled it once we got back to school after his assassination, and that they not be the ones that let him die in vain. That they make sure that they are productive citizens like he would want us all to be and that they, at some point would be judged by their character not the color of their skin. And of course, I have to continue to say something about the character.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: At some point. Do you know what that point will be? That we will be judged by the content of our character, not of the color skin.
JANICE ROBINSON: It doesn’t look like it’s going to be during my lifetime, I don’t know.
ZANDRIA ROBINSON: Thanks, mom.
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.