By the late ’60s, however, the rift was narrowing. White kids clamored to clubs that featured Black bands onstage, while enterprising African American businessmen sought careers within White-owned corporations. There was grumbling on both sides—White Memphians felt like things were happening too quickly, while Blacks complained that they weren’t moving fast enough. But slowly the city’s culture began to change.
Bettye Berger: Sam Phillips and I were always trying to figure out why these Black musicians were willing to work with us. He thought that Ivory Joe trusted me because I was a woman. I wanted everybody to have equal rights—even now I say, “I don’t look at the skin, I look at the soul.”
Calvin Newborn: Believe it or not, Elvis [Presley] was the first color-blind person I knew. He was a frequent visitor at my dad’s music shop on Beale Street and at home. He sent us Christmas cards and gave my brother an expensive gold watch.
Brother and sister team Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton had relocated their tiny studio from rural Tennessee to south Memphis in 1960, setting up shop in the unoccupied Capitol movie theater on East McLemore Avenue. “I had scarcely seen a Black person ’til I was grown,” recalled Stewart to musicologist Peter Guralnick. “I had no desire to start Stax Records; I had no dream of doing anything like that. I just wanted music, just anything to be involved with music.” Located in an African American working-class community, Stax offered equal opportunities for Blacks and Whites.
William Bell: Memphis was a segregated city, but we helped change all of that. Stax had White and Black employees, and Mr. Stewart and Mrs. Axton believed in the empowerment of Black people, which was on the cutting edge. And, of course, we had Booker T. & the MG’s, who were totally fifty-fifty.
Al Bell: At Stax, Blacks and Whites came off a segregated street corner into an oasis where we didn’t think about color. Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton didn’t make a difference in the races, they just talked about music. There was no plantation mentality there—absolutely, unequivocally not. There wasn’t that kind of spirit in Mrs. Axton, and there wasn’t that kind of spirit in Mr. Stewart. We couldn’t have been that oasis in the desert of segregation if that kind of attitude existed. They became mom and dad to everyone who worked there.
Deanie Parker: The entire organization—everybody from the mail-room workers and the broom man on to the most popular creative talent—was into research and development. Everybody was engaged in some capacity, whether it was to put the test pressing on the turntable after the session and get their input, or watch their response. Reluctant or willing, you had no choice in the matter with Estelle or Al Bell!
By choice, I spent all of my downtime at 926 East McLemore Avenue. I was learning about the various aspects of the business—the publishing and the production end. After working eight to five, I got to compose songs with the likes of Eddie Floyd, Steve Cropper, or Booker; Bettye Crutcher, Homer Banks, and others. At the time, activism wasn’t necessarily a hot topic. What was important was our growing consciousness about the state of Black people in America. We felt compelled—actually, we felt like we had a moral and civic obligation—to write songs with “how to” messages in them. Stax provided a lot of guidance for us, and we wanted to use our influence to help others.
If you were Black, you were Black—I don’t give a damn where you were. But Stax Records was such a utopian environment.Deanie Parker
Then, on February 1, 1968, race relations in Memphis ground to a halt. During a rainstorm, two Black sanitation workers were crushed to death while working on the back of a garbage truck. That same day, twenty-two Black sewer workers were sent home without pay; their White supervisors each received a full check.
Isaac Hayes: We had a mayor, Henry Loeb, who said in public that he was a staunch racist. Memphis just wasn’t living up to its name of “The City of Good Abode.” Good abode means for all people—not just White people, but Blacks as well.
Deanie Parker: Fortunately for me, I lived in Memphis, but much of my work necessitated my being on the road. I spent a lot of time in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Atlanta, and other places that were more progressive and more cosmopolitan than Memphis. I had enough opportunities to get out of town that I had a perfect balance. Being here kept me grounded, but being “out there” helped me be a lot more aware and informed than if I’d been isolated here.
Those of us in the music industry loved what we were doing so much that we had tunnel vision. We weren’t totally oblivious [to the movement]. If you were Black, you were Black—I don’t give a damn where you were. But Stax Records was such a utopian environment. We were able to work with people who were different from us, and, more importantly, we had their respect. We weren’t working in a hostile environment, which was totally different from what we experienced in the outside world.
Al Bell: One incident really shook me: Jim Stewart and Paul Glass—he owned Allstate Distribution Company out of Chicago—and I walked out onto the curb at 926 East McLemore. Jim was on one side, Paul on the other, with me in the middle. A patrol car came up the street, saw us, and did a U-turn so fast that he jumped the curb. He jumped out of the car, gun in hand, and said, “Nigger, get back in the building. We don’t allow Blacks and Whites together in Memphis, Tennessee.” My blood pressure went up; I got his badge number, but Jim calmed me down. That was a harsh reality.
Two weeks later, more than a thousand sanitation workers prepared for a strike. Their goals were simple: job safety, better wages, and union recognition. Thousands of Black Memphians—including religious leaders, educators, and musicians—rallied behind them, even as Mayor Loeb refused to back down. Within two days, ten thousand pounds of garbage piled up, as most of Black Memphis—many protestors wearing “I Am A Man” placards—marched downtown. For fourteen days, the city battled against the protestors, using mace, jail sentences, and contempt of court tickets as threats. But when Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis on Monday, March 18, more than seventeen thousand people—Black and White—showed their support.
Deanie Parker: I grew up with [the publisher of Memphis’s African American newspaper, the Tri-State Defender] Mrs. Mattie Sengstacke’s kids. Her son and his friends were beaten participating in that march. In a way, I was fortunate to have another interest—that I didn’t get caught up in the Memphis Civil Rights experience. I didn’t become a statistic like so many of my friends and classmates who tried to change this city.
On Friday, organizers cancelled a march after a freak snowstorm blocked King’s arrival. They rescheduled the event for the following Thursday, when, as mediation between Loeb and the strikers crumbled, police attacked the crowd of six thousand protesters with night sticks, tear gas, and gunfire. One sixteen-year-old marcher was killed, and more than fifty others were injured. Four thousand National Guardsmen patrolled the city as Mayor Loeb imposed a 7 p.m. curfew.
Al Bell: When Dr. King would come to Memphis, he’d stay at Rev. Billy Kyles’s home, about three houses up from me on South Parkway East. Or sometimes he’d stay at the Lorraine Motel. I saw him at Rev. Kyles’s house that week, and I told him, “Doc, I’m working on a song I want to record and give to you.” It was called “Send Peace and Harmony Home.” See, he was about harmony amongst the ethnic groups, and he was about peace. I got with Eddie Floyd and Booker T., and we wrote that song and got ready to record it a few days later.
Isaac Hayes: When Dr. King came for that last march, I marched with him. We were disrupted by the police. We got maced, and we told each other to go back to Mason Temple, where the march began. I got locked outside with a bunch of people, and dogs were sicced on us. It was a rough time… After that he gave his last speech—“I’ve been to the mountaintop” and all that, but I missed it.
MLK returned to Memphis on Wednesday, April 3, to schedule another march and to deliver his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” address. That day he checked into the Lorraine Motel, a favorite stopover for Black entertainers. Later that night, when he spoke at Clayborn Temple, he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—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 so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Curfew was lifted, and the National Guard left the city’s streets.
Early the next evening, Rev. Billy Kyles drove to the Lorraine to pick up his friend for dinner. King was shot at 6:01 p.m. as he stood on the motel balcony. The .30-06 caliber rifle bullet entered his jaw from the right, traveled through his neck, and severed his spinal cord. At a nearby hospital, Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. He was thirty-nine years old.
Al Bell: We were in the studio—I was recording “Send Peace and Harmony Home” on a young lady named Shirley Watson. She couldn’t get into the song—the passion wasn’t there. Then, on the sixteenth take, Homer Banks came in the studio and said, “Hey, Dr. King just got killed.” This was as the tape was rolling. Shirley started singing, and tears just poured from her eyes. We did a limited-edition release on that and gave copies to Mrs. Coretta King and the family and had it read into the Congressional Record. Afterwards we destroyed the master, because the idea wasn’t to exploit the song.
William Bell: I was driving. I remember all of the lights in downtown Memphis were green in one direction, which was odd, but I didn’t know what had happened. When I got to Stax, they were all talking about it, and I realized that’s what was going on when I passed through downtown. We were all in shock. In the aftermath, when all the looting started, David Porter, Isaac Hayes, and I went on the radio and pleaded for calmness and for the people to not destroy the neighborhoods. The thing that hit me the most was that Stax was one of the few buildings in the area that was left untouched. The neighborhood held Stax Records in high esteem.
Bettye Berger: I was at home. I was supposed to take my son shopping at the Whitehaven Mall, but there wasn’t a soul there. The city was eerily quiet. I had a plane full of artists coming in, the first big money for my agency, and everything was cancelled. I had Joe Tex scheduled to do a Pearl Beer commercial at American Studio, and by the time he got here, we’d lost all our spirit. Tanks were rolling down Lamar Avenue, which was scary. It was just a sad, sad day.
Deanie Parker: I was on my way to work when I heard the news over the radio. The sky got dark and the wind picked up instantly—it looked as though the world was coming to an end. Coupled with this looming storm, the message intensified. It blurred my vision, and I almost checked out for a minute. It was like the heavens were speaking out, chastising us and expressing total displeasure with what was going on. I felt like some giant cloud was gonna reach through the clouds and take us all away. It was a complete déjà vu of the day President Kennedy was assassinated. It was so eerie, so frightening.
I had to get to Stax—it was my comfort zone. I didn’t even think about stopping at home. I needed to be with the people I loved, the people I trusted—with the people who could understand what I was feeling. Driving through Memphis, it was almost as if they’d put up traffic barricades—the streets were empty and there was a stillness. Nobody wanted to talk above a certain decibel. We didn’t want to admit the unthinkable: that it happened here. By the time I got to 926 East McLemore, everybody was glued to the final news, praying and hoping that it wasn’t really true.
Dr. King wasn’t a plain man, but he was just a man walking the earth and trying to do the right thing, trying to make a better day for the people in this community. I was still burning from the news we’d gotten a few days earlier about this poor man whose body had been crushed to death in a garbage truck. Did they stop for a day? No. A Black life wasn’t worth a nickel. As the day wore on and they began to play back the “Mountaintop” speech, it became very obvious that it was prophetic. At that moment, I wished that I’d been more involved, so that I could truly understand what was so horrible, so difficult, so dangerous, so unappreciated, so intimidating, about what this man was advocating that anybody should want to take his life.
The National Guard set up their bivouac right on the corner, but Bettye Crutcher and I decided to defy them, so we stayed in the studio.Deanie Parker
The city rioted, and, before nightfall, Mayor Loeb called for martial law.
Isaac Hayes: We called City Hall and got permission to work. The National Guard was lined up and down every street, because there was rioting all over town. One of them almost shot my buddy Benny Mabone when he opened the studio door. This soldier leveled on him—he was a young kid, and he didn’t know any better. [Benny] was like, “No, no, we’re in the studio, man. We got permission. Drop your rifle.”
Deanie Parker: When the National Guard instituted a curfew, I was particularly annoyed. I thought it was overkill—of all the places in the community, Stax was an integrated organization. I had an I dare you attitude, because we were doing what Dr. King had preached about. The curfew interfered with the lifestyle we enjoyed here, which was so atypical of Memphis. The National Guard set up their bivouac right on the corner, but Bettye Crutcher and I decided to defy them, so we stayed in the studio. We did take some things seriously—we carted out all of the master tapes, because we were afraid of looters. Someone torched Jones’ Big Star right across the street, where David Porter used to sack groceries. Later that night we got scared, because we didn’t know how we were gonna get out of here and go home.
The sanitation workers’ strike finally ended on April 16, but, sadly, things in Memphis, Tennessee, were never the same again. On the local music scene, relationships were put to the test as turmoil reigned in people’s hearts and on the city’s streets.
Bettye Berger: I was devastated—here we’d built up relationships with people working together, playing together, loving each other, and worshipping together, and I thought it was going to be ruined. I didn’t feel any different, I just felt sorry. I felt guilty, too. I wanted to walk up to everybody and apologize. Right afterwards, I went to some NAACP meetings—Rufus Thomas’s wife sold me a membership. I got some bad vibes there. That bothered me, but it didn’t kill me.
Deanie Parker: Between the National Guard and everybody running around looking for the white Mustang [James Earl Ray’s supposed getaway car], there was a lot of distrust. We wondered, “If you knew this was gonna be a volatile situation, why wouldn’t you have had adequate security?” Then a story came out about how certain policemen had been pulled off the security detail. Officer Redditt [an African American detective who was guarding Dr. King and was removed from duty when police received an anonymous death threat against him] used to be on this beat, right here around the studio. But nothing shut down. My feelings for the people I worked with didn’t change. I didn’t feel any differently about Duck [Dunn] or Steve [Cropper], nor was I bothered about them feeling differently about me. The relationships we had were genuine, and they stood the test of time.
Isaac Hayes: My whole world collapsed; I couldn’t create or do anything. It took me a year to get back in full form. I pushed a lot of stuff—you can’t avoid equal employment, even at Stax. I told Jim Stewart, “This company primarily caters to the R&B market. You’ve got to represent us—you’ve got to have more Blacks in here working in other jobs besides the musicians.” I got him to hire a Black secretary, Earlie Byles, and Al Bell got a Black secretary too.
Al Bell: Dr. King’s murder changed our lives and our way of living, but at Stax, it didn’t change how we interacted with each other. It’s difficult to articulate how it affected us, but if I had to narrow it to one word, I would say “pain.” Everybody—Black and White—was sad. Remember, we went to the Lorraine Motel and the Four-Way Grill together, we ate together, swam together, and slept together. Everyone could relate. Then, all of a sudden, the White people working at Stax were concerned about the Black people on the outside who wanted to hurt them because of their skin color.
What was so strange was that our problems didn’t come from White people—they came from Black thugs who came up to us and said, “You have to pay us to put a mark on the building, or else we’ll burn it down.” They stood on the street corner, threatening the Whites who worked at Stax. On one occasion, the threats got so rough that Jim Stewart and I met the leaders in a nearby park. I let them know that I had a .357 Magnum, and if they wanted to challenge us, they were gonna have a problem. A friend of mine called up Johnny Baylor, who was in New York, and he brought Dino Woodard to Memphis. They started patrolling the neighborhood to let the thugs know that Stax was off-limits. It’s a sad commentary, but that’s what the reality of the situation was.
William Bell: I didn’t have the heart to stay in Memphis, so Booker T. and I left together. He went to L.A., and I came to Atlanta.
The sole positive note after Dr. King’s assassination was that Black consciousness remained on the rise. Over the next few years, Al Bell began working with Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson on Operation PUSH, Isaac Hayes was proclaimed the Black Moses, Homer Banks and Bettye Crutcher continued to pen message songs, and the Staple Singers recorded socio-political anthems like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” When Bell and Larry Shaw put together the Wattstax festival and film project in 1972, it marked the apex of activism for the label.
Al Bell: Luckily we managed to make great music after Dr. King’s death. Those of us who were writers used our lyrics and melodies to write about and reflect on the African American lifestyle. We had our own little world, and some of us at Stax—Larry Shaw, Forest Hamilton, Deanie Parker, and others—had a vision of how we should be projected as a people. In a sense, that was an extension of what Dr. King was about. With Wattstax we had an opportunity to present African Americans as a people with no riots, no this or that. We put 112,000 people in an arena with no LAPD, no guns inside, and we didn’t have a single problem. Our reasoning was different [than MLK’s message], but the end result was the same.
Isaac Hayes: I helped form a group called the Black Knights to tug at the apron strings of consciousness in this city. We became like a burr in the saddle. I had to; that was the only thing I could do. This man had laid down his life for some sanitation workers, but he ultimately laid down his life for the freedom of people all over the world. The least I could do was try to keep his legacy alive, but I realized that I had to do it through my music. That’s when I got busy creating again.
Dino Woodard called me Black Moses. I decided I’ll try to live up to that, and I accepted the responsibility, because it was raising the level of consciousness and giving an image people could be proud of. I wasn’t promoting drugs and booze, I was promoting love and happiness and responsibility. Listen to my lyrics on “Soulsville”—I was talking about the conditions in which we were living. At one time, chains represented enslavement, which is why I put those on. [laughs] And I didn’t want to come out on stage in a three-piece suit. I wanted to feel comfortable!
Memphis continues to persevere. Creditors forced Stax into bankruptcy in 1975, and the studio was later razed by the Church of God in Christ, but the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was eventually erected on the building’s original site. Opened in 2003, the museum and the adjoining Stax Music Academy, a music school for underprivileged youth, anchor a community that—hopefully—is on its first rebound in thirty-five years.
Where the Lorraine Motel once stood, the National Civil Rights Museum celebrates MLK’s legacy, even as picketer Jacqueline Smith, a one-time resident of the motel, contends that the facility is nothing but a tourist trap. She’s spent the last fifteen years living on the corner in protest—today, she and the museum live in dubious harmony. Passers-by stop to sign her petition and hear her out, then—always—enter the courtyard of the museum and disappear inside. An estimated 125,000 people a year walk past Smith on their way to and from the museum, yet she continues to bide her time, determined to wait out the enemy.