A four-part series featuring memories from black Memphians who lived through the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Wendi C. Thomas: Can you start by saying your name?
Janice Frazier-Scott: Sure, my name is Janice Frazier-Scott.
How old were you in the spring of 1968?
I was 16 years old.
OK, and where were you living?
I was living in Memphis, in an area called Gaslight Square, which, if you are familiar with it, is close to Hamilton High School.
Is that where you went to school?
No, I went to Melrose.
OK, and I understand you have a more-special connection than others to the movement through your grandfather?
Yes, my grandfather was the late D.S. Cunningham, and he was part of the ministers’ group who was responsible for bringing Dr. King to the city.
So, at 16, what did you understand about Dr. King coming to Memphis, and what was going on with the sanitation workers?
We probably need to back up a lot earlier than that. My grandfather was always very involved in civil rights and activism. He had been the president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP when I was very young. So, I grew up in the movement. I was fully cognizant of what the sanitation workers were seeking, in terms of a living wage, and in even more terms of respect as people.
Say more about the respect.
I can remember very distinctly seeing the sanitation workers, and in those days they were referred to as the garbage men, collecting the refuse from people’s homes and the conditions were really deplorable. They had tubs on their heads most of the time, where they collected the refuse from people’s homes, and in those days people didn’t bag their trash like they do today, so they really were dealing with a lot of horrible sanitation conditions when they were working.
So where was your grandfather pastoring? Was he pastoring at that time?
At that time, he was no longer pastoring. He had actually been elected to a position in the National CME Church, so he was responsible for a department in the national church.
So do you remember the first march that King led, in Memphis, in March of ’68?
I do remember it. I recall that I was in Clayborn Temple. My grandfather never tried to dissuade me from being involved, but he wanted me to be safe. So often times he would make sure I was with some adult that he knew, normally a female, to just make sure I was OK and that he was always aware that I was with someone that would be responsible for me.
Who were you with that day?
I don’t really remember who I was with at that particular time. I am sure it was somebody from the NAACP though.
So, you are at Clayborn Temple. Describe that day.
It was a very emotional day. The air was kind of electric. People were excited. Obviously because Dr. King was there, but also I think people were somewhat apprehensive as well because they didn’t know what to expect, and so there were a lot of things going on. There were a lot of instructions being given. There were reminders to people that they may be attacked verbally. I don’t remember anybody saying there might be some physical consequences, but people were admonished to remain calm and remember this was a nonviolent movement. So those are things I recall about that day.
Right. And that was a march that ended up turning violent …
Yes, that did.
With police chased marchers back into Clayborn Temple. Were you still there?
I was still there. I never really was allowed to leave because for some reason we were detained, and then when we learned things had not gone well, they made sure we stayed in the building — the adults who were there, still there.
Did the police come in the church?
No. They did not come in the church while I was there. I didn’t see any of them.
Were you scared?
Of course! Definitely afraid. But, I think I would have been more afraid had I been actually out on the street. The church was safety.
So how did your parents feel about you participating in the movement? You said your grandfather was really supportive…
My parents actually lived in California at that particular time. My stepfather is life military. So, they lived in San Diego, and I elected to stay in Memphis with the grandparents, so they were aware of my involvement. Having grown up in a household where activism was what we were always involved in, I doubt that my mother would have had any concerns about me doing that.
Do you remember where you were when King was killed?
I was at home. I remember the news flash coming on the TV, and I already knew without them saying that he was already dead. How I knew that I don’t know. But it was just a premonition, given everything that had been transpiring. Of course, when they actually said that he had been shot, again that horrible feeling came over me, and I cried like he was a member of my family, and I had never met him.
Did you have interaction with any of the sanitation workers?
No. I never did.
So, I understand that school was out immediately following King’s death in Memphis?
Yes, that’s true.
Do you remember your teachers talking about this at school?
I really don’t. I would assume that they did among themselves, but I don’t remember us being engaged as students, with the teachers.
WT: What did you think would happen for the sanitation workers after King was killed?
I wasn’t really sure. I guess I was too young to know if that was a turning point. Obviously, it became one, in retrospect. But at the particular time, I guess I was caught up in the frenzy of what had transpired and how awful that actually was.
So how did the days immediately after King’s assassination; what were those like for you? What were you doing? Where were you going?
I was home, mostly. I can certainly remember my grandfather and my grandmother discussing everything that was going on. I think my grandmother was far more emotional and just really felt awful that her husband had been involved in a group that ultimately the result was Dr. King died. But, I think my grandfather had always been the type that realized that you could possibly be killed for taking a stand against what was the status quo, and although he was sorrowful for the situation, he was also realistic.
Did he ever feel, or did he ever tell you that he felt, did he ever tell you he regretted inviting King to Memphis?
No. He never said that.
So, if King were to come back to Memphis today, what do you think he would think of our city?
I think Dr. King would be sorely disappointed that we haven’t made much progress in the last 50 years. I know that there are a lot of people who would disagree with that, but in a city where poverty is rampant, even more so in my opinion, than it was in 1968 … in a city where the vast majority of people who graduate from high school have very little to look forward to as far as job opportunities are concerned, would be a disappointment to him, I believe. I think he would also be very disappointed that racial strife is so prevalent today and so obvious.
You know Memphis has had, you know, two black mayors since King was killed and a majority of the City Council is black, a sizeable number on the County Commission, does that feel like progress to you?
I think it was progress, given where we came from, Henry Loeb and Wyeth Chandler and people of that ilk. I think we should have made much more progress than we did under those administrations.
Justin Willingham, WKNO: Which administrations?
Both the Herenton administration and the Wharton administration.
You know, 50 years after King’s death, the city has given grants to the living sanitation workers to repay them for the miscalculations on their retirements. Does that feel like a worthy tribute to those men and their sacrifice?
If I’m correct I believe the grants were $10,000?
Wendi C. Thomas: 50,000.
Oh, were they? $50,000? So that’s like a $1,000 for each year? That to me is an insult. I think given the sacrifice they went through, and given the fact that, I think, within the last year there was one who was still working and was well into his 80s, that’s not nearly enough to pay them for what they experienced.
So, in your daily life, how do you try and live out King’s dream? What does that look like for you?
I remain an activist because I believe that is important. I probably am one of the most outspoken people in my family. I recognize I have a responsibility, not only to the community but to myself. I have a responsibility to live the way I was taught to live. And unlike those who call themselves Christian, who practice a brand of Christianity that I’m not familiar with, I believe that Jesus intends for me to really live the life that he demonstrated. Ministry to the marginalized. To provide resources where I can. To help people. To speak up for those who have no voices. So, that’s what I’ve been doing.
Justin Willingham, WKNO: Since 1968 when Dr. King was murdered, what has your career been? What has your activism been?
My career has been in human R=resources, so that has been a way, I believe, to demonstrate my commitment. I have also been a very active member of my sorority, which is Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. I was involved in social activism, social justice, so I believe those have been some of the ways I have demonstrated my commitment to the dream.
What do you think Dr. King would think of the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think that Dr. King would be proud that the mantle has been taken up by what would be considered to be nontraditional people. I think that he would be happy to know that there are still people who are committed to making America a country of equality. So, I think he would be pleased by what he would see.
Justin Willingham, WKNO: Do you think commemorations coming up next year from the City of Memphis and, and I’ve seen this film called “My Friend Martin” that my mother used to show to her children, and it was an animated thing. It involved Martin Luther King coming back from the past and visiting the Civil Rights Museum and visiting Memphis and visiting other cities, I guess possibly the most poverty-ridden parts of cities. Do you think that Dr. King would have any opinion about how the Civil Rights Movement has been portrayed, as opposed to what other people, say, at the Lorraine Motel, at the Civil Rights Museum, The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis? And if you have no opinion that’s fine too …
I think, and I am not sure this really answers the question, but I think in many instances Dr. King has been sanitized to make him acceptable to an array of people. Dr. King was a radical. And he was becoming even more radical prior to his death, if you just think about the Poor People’s Campaign, his stand on Vietnam, and so many other things that were beyond the traditional “civil rights” label. A lot of people would be afraid of Dr. King. So, that’s what I think about that.
What would Dr. King, in your opinion, want us to do April 4, 1968. What would honoring him and his legacy look like in very practical, specific terms?
I think the way to honor Dr. King is to really do the things that he set out to do. Memphis needs to really take a deep look at itself and instead of promoting a 50th commemoration of his death as an “event,” so to speak, it really needs to examine where do we go from here? Is Memphis going to provide a quality of life for all its citizens that is a good quality of life?
Are we going to continue to be recognized as one of the worst cities for so many things that we have been known for — poverty, health, education — all of those things that are important to actually having a good life? We’re at a crossroads in my opinion.
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.