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‘All the trappings of war were there’

By John Darling

for the Mail Tribune

Before and after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., 50 years ago on April 4, the city of Memphis was a seething cauldron of hate, violence, marches, striking sanitation workers and strikebreakers.

Ashlander Elizabeth Austin lived there. She was a young mother and nurse at St Joseph’s Hospital, where the mortally wounded civil rights leader was brought — and died within hours. Austin, 75, was not on duty when it happened, but reflects that, for months, Memphis was nearly a war zone.

King had been called to Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike. The workers, most of them black, were paid about $1.90 an hour and worked hard in all weather in unsafe conditions, she says. On Feb. 1, 1968, two died when a malfunctioning trash compacter in a garbage truck crushed them. Some 1,300 black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works, dissatisfied with the city’s response, went on strike Feb. 12. The city refused to recognize their proposed union and wouldn’t negotiate.

A planned march on March 28 devolved into riots. Stores were looted. The mayor declared martial law, and soon tanks and bayonet-wielding National Guard troops roamed downtown streets.

“I was really afraid of what might happen,” Austin says. “I was concerned for my own family. All the trappings of war were there. (A friend) put his family in the car and took off for Florida. It was a vicious divide between black and white. ... I could see all the anger I believed was going to erupt into violence. It was very frightening and pointless.”

King gave his familiar speeches supporting non-violent protest, but in retrospect, what puzzles Austin is that, along with his inspirational messages, “his speeches touched into the emotional being of listeners and, for a peaceful man, he stirred up a lot of trouble.”

On April 3, King gave a speech at Mason Temple Church in Memphis that seemed to foreshadow his death.

“I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

Austin reflects on those days, “It seems to me he was asking to be killed, especially on April 3. ... I heard it on the radio. I was stunned. I felt something really, really bad was going to happen. I thought he should take accountability for really touching their hearts and passions that drove people to extreme action, in the spirit of ‘taking down the man.’ It was one of those unintended consequences.”

Austin went to work at the hospital hours after King had died there, and “it was really quiet, not much conversation. ... Everyone was tense, angry. People like me just would clam up and take shelter. There was danger everywhere. I can’t describe the feelings of fear and distress. Something like that doesn’t just disappear. White feared black and black feared white and it went on for a long time.”

Austin likens the story to the journey of Jesus into Jerusalem for the culmination of his teachings of peace and love, followed by his murder.

“It was a cauldron of history in the making and no one at the time thought it would evolve into what it has ... with King so respected and admired so many years later. His words, read today are so beautiful. Yet the threat of racism today is still so huge. ... The polarization in the country is increasing to the same point I felt in ’68. King brought race to the forefront and it’s happening now in a different way. We’re all being called more deeply than ever to look at the conflicts that exist in our own selves.”

The legacy from King, she says, is that he created a model for society “so we could get to the point where we regard each other with respect, kindness and treat each other as brother and sister. ... I want my children to live in a culture of peace and care for each other. The Golden Rule, that was his message and legacy to us. It has to start inside and spread out to the world.”

Austin for years ran a school for riverboat pilots in Memphis, moving to Ashland in 1989 as a student of noted philosopher-author Jean Houston, another Ashlander. Austin is a “certified professional co-active coach” with “weary and overwhelmed” clients in high-stress jobs, such as health care.

Austin is chairwoman of the board of Ashland Culture of Peace, which in September will erect the World Peace Flame monument in the Thalden Pavilion by Southern Oregon University’s garden. The perpetually burning flame in Ashland, powered by renewable oils, will be only the second such monument in the United States. The first is at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Courtesy photo Elizabeth Austin with her children in 1968.