Doubting MLK During a Strike in Memphis

A retired Presbyterian pastor looks back on 1968, when he participated in the civil-rights struggle but hadn’t yet embraced the principles of nonviolence.

A person, carrying an umbrella, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Mike Segar/ Reuters)

Gibson “Nibs” Stroupe is a recently retired pastor who spent decades presiding over the proudly multicultural Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. He traces his ministry and the ideas that informed it back to 1968, and shared his experiences with me after learning of The Atlantic’s exploration of that year.

He wrote:

I was a senior at what was then Southwestern Presbyterian University, and what is now Rhodes College, during the Memphis garbage-workers strike of 1968. I joined other students who were part of that strike. It was part of an ongoing shift in my consciousness from a white person raised in the segregated South to a white person who gradually began to see how captive I was to the power of race.

I had been taught racism by my family, my church, and my teachers––by really decent white people in my hometown on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta. I believed that white people were superior, and that black people would never be our peers or equals. If at times my experience seemed to teach otherwise, I was like Thomas Jefferson in his “Notes on Virginia.” Though he agonized over the ideas of equality and slavery, he indicated that he could not find evidence of the equality of people of African heritage.

Education was one of my paths out of this total captivity to race.  Though most of my public-school teachers were believers in race, one of my English teachers, a Jewish woman in our small Arkansas town, suggested that I read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country about apartheid in South Africa. I read it, and in it I met my first black person. Oh yes, I had seen many black people in my youth, but I had not considered any of them to be a person as I was.

College expanded my horizons. I began to hang out with the first black students at my college. And in my junior year, I was one leader of demonstrations that helped to close down a restaurant that refused to serve one of my black friends. As 1968 began, I joined other young people around the country, black and white, who had begun to believe Martin Luther King Jr. and his way of nonviolence were not only irrelevant, but were counterproductive and even dangerous. Though I was not yet swayed by H. Rap Brown’s emphasis on the fundamental nature of violence in American life, it seemed to be the only way that justice might come for people of African heritage.  

I jumped into the garbage strike, going on marches, seeking to organize and educate others. I was part of [a] group of students who went to churches on Sunday mornings, standing up to interrupt worship to shout, “Support the garbage strike!” We would usually be escorted out, but a few people were sympathetic. I retired from the ministry in 2017, and I have often wondered what I would have done as a worship leader if such interruptions had come in my time. Fortunately, none ever did. I’d like to think it was because Oakhurst Presbyterian was such a progressive church, but the issue remains in my heart.

Many of us felt that there was a possibility of victory in the garbage strike, and when Dr. King agreed to come to Memphis to support the strike, we had ambivalent feelings. It seemed to us that he was only trying to capture the headlines, and the organizing seemed to be going well without him. When his first march was organized, it ended in violence, as black youth and police clashed. Dr. King seemed stunned that the black youth did not hold him and his principle of nonviolence in high esteem, and he was returning to Memphis in early April to organize a bigger march that he intended to stay nonviolent. I had an opportunity to go to Mason Temple to hear what would be his last sermon on April 3, but to my eternal regret, my lack of respect for him and my cynicism kept me from attending.

I was working in the college library on the evening of April 4, and when my shift ended a little after 6 p.m., I was walking out of the library when one of my black student friends came up to me to say, in anger and in disgust, that Dr. King had been shot and would likely not live.  He then asked me: “Some of my friends are organizing for the revolutionary fight. We want to buy guns. Can you lend me some money to help buy guns?” I was stunned by his revelation and by his question, and I did not know how to respond. I have racked my brain, but I cannot remember whether I gave him any money or not. I was a relatively poor student, and I did not have money to spare anyway.

Violence followed in Memphis and throughout the country. The great apostle of nonviolence was gunned down by white people, and it seemed like all hope was lost. I remember the National Guard armored cars riding up and down the streets in Memphis. I felt lost and forlorn. That feeling was strengthened by the assassination of Robert Kennedy two months later and by the violence of the police at the Democratic convention that summer, followed by the election of Richard Nixon.

I have thought over these events many times since then, and I have gained great respect for Dr. King over the years—I wish that I had known then what I know now! Though it is greatly diminished, the power of race remains in me. And, though I understand the impulse and sometimes the agency of violence, I am firmly committed to the principles of nonviolent resistance, which Dr. King developed so well.   

The continuing struggle for equality for black people, for women, for immigrants, for LGBTQ people reminds me that this struggle is ongoing in American history.  I don’t know if 2018 will be similar to 1968 or not, but I do know that in all of our work, the two forces of love and justice must be kept in proper tension. As James Cone indicated in his fine book on Dr. King and Malcolm X,  King began with love and moved towards justice, while Malcolm X began with justice and moved towards love.  Both of those must be present if we are to build and sustain movements and communities dedicated to equity and justice.

If you’re willing to share recollections, illustrative cultural moments, reflections about family life, anecdotes about technology, photos, or anything else that could help younger people understand what 1968 was like, emails to on whatever you find of interest would be much appreciated.