Sit-In Staged at City Council

Tuesday, March 5, 1968

Sit-In Staged at City Council
Protesters Arrested
Later Released Without Bond

COME (Community On the Move for Equality) staged a sit-in at a Memphis City Council meeting today leading to the arrest of many protesters, ultimately being freed without bond.

Responding to rumored direct action by the group, the Memphis Police Department posted two hundred police officers in City Hall. Rev. Dick Moon started the protest soon after City Council began their session. The white Presbyterian chaplain at Memphis State University read a long passage from the Bible, specifically the book of Jeremiah. His short filibuster ended with the following short passage: “We will burn this city down.” Council members vocally protested to this but allowed for proceedings to continue.

Rev. Ezekiel Bell, pastor of Parkway Gardens Presbyterian Church, spoke up next. A Commercial Appeal reporter present for the proceedings heard him repeatedly admonish the Council. A few statements recorded by the reporter include “I say you men don’t have any backbone and you are going to hell…I don’t like rats. I don’t like black rats. I don’t like white rats…The white preachers are too damn scared to tell you what you need to hear. You are not reasonable people…All these men are asking for is dignity and respect…If these men were white, you would have already done something…” Exasperated by the proceedings, Councilman Lewis Donelson went over the edge, angrily shouting “Mr. Bell, Mr. Bell. We have listened to you patiently. Either you speak to us in respect or I will move for adjournment.” A Tri-State Defender reporter recorded Rev. Bell’s response to this, “if telling the truth insults you then adjourn your meeting, because I am telling the truth.” When Rev. Bell continued, the Council voted to adjourn.

Most of those present in the audience kept their seats while COME let the word spread that the only exit worthy on this day was to leave in handcuffs. This was previously planned in committee according to Rev. Moon, who stated, “We were going to get some people into jail. We wanted martyrs, not dead ones but live ones in jail.”

Meanwhile attorney David Caywood volunteered himself as a liaison between Mayor Henry Loeb, Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux, and Rev. James Lawson, the main leader of the protest in the Council Chambers. The police for their part were most interested in an uneventful emptying of Council chambers and did not seem up for confrontation this evening.

All through the afternoon, the protestors in City Hall maintained their vigil, some chanting, “We Want Arrest,” but as a whole remained in good spirits. Lux, Caywood, and protest leaders agreed that any arrest would be non-violent, and at approximately 6:00 p.m. the police demanded that the protest leaders line up for handcuffing. The entire crowd disagreed and demanded that they all be taken in for arrest, a demand with which the police officers complied.

The arrests seem to have been largely peaceful partially due to the efforts of Asst. Chief Lux to exercise restraint. However, there have been a few reports of disrespect on the part of certain officers. Rev. Henry Starks for one has reported being called “boy” by the officer taking him into custody while Mrs. Maxine Smith has complained that an officer at the city jail tried to order her to go into a men’s restroom that was currently being used. She has further complained that despite continued protests multiple officers and city employees refused to call her by her full name, Mrs. Maxine Smith, instead only using her first name, a sign of disrespect.

Attorneys Walter Bailey and W. Otis Higgs, among others, are defending those arrested with disorderly conduct charges.

Letter From Maxine Smith to Holloman Concerning Her Arrest. Civil Rights Collection, DIG Memphis.
Unknown. “100 Charged With Disorderly Conduct.” Tri-State Defender (Memphis, TN), March 9, 1968.
Unknown. “Cops Insult Negro Women Jailed at City Hall Sit-In.” Memphis World (Memphis, TN), March 16, 1968.
Beifuss, Joan Turner. At The River I Stand. Memphis: St. Luke’s Press, 1985.