January 11, 2017
Tonight I attended a screening of the documentary “The Invaders” at Colorado College and stayed afterwards for discussion with John B. Smith, King Khan, and Idris Goodwin. The film told the story of The Invaders, a black social justice group in Memphis Tennessee and their involvement with the sanitation worker strike and the civil rights march just before Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was fascinating to see the consciousness of struggle and resistance take shape at the local level. I had never heard of The Invaders before, nor the names of its leaders. In addition to telling this local story, the documentary adds important dimensions to the simplistic depiction of the civil rights movement and Dr. King that prevails in popular culture. We get a glimpse of the internal questioning and divisions that existed, particularly the gap between the middle class civil rights leaders, the broader community of lower-income Blacks in Memphis, and more radicalized groups, such as The Invaders. I realized, watching the film, that the leaders of The Invaders were some of the last people invited to talk with Dr. King in his hotel room on the day that he was killed. In that discussion, the Invaders insisted that they had not instigated the violence that disrupted the earlier march to support the sanitation workers. Dr. King respected them as colleagues and, in turn, they each shared the challenges that each faced. For The Invaders, it was being excluded from the strategic leadership of the civil rights movement in Memphis and being targeted by the police. For King it was facing the all-out commitment of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to destroy him personally and the civil rights movement, it was the challenge of refocusing his message on the rights of poor people, and of building alliances outside of South, including with more radical young groups around the country. They left the meeting committed to work together in support of the poor peoples’ march on Washington. Within hours, King lay dead on the balcony outside that same room.
The film told a personal story of young people, mostly men, standing up with a new sense of insight, urgency and power to make a difference in their community. They did not accept the limits of community leadership, nor the orthodoxy of non-violent social change. The film also captured the grinding poverty in Memphis and the outrageous and pervasive racism—for example, the garbage collectors were not even allowed to use the “whites only” washrooms to clean up after their shifts, and the Mayor refused to open any dialogue about work conditions until the strike was lifted.
The panel after the film headed by a youngish Colorado College professor, Idris Goodwin, also included King Khan the musician who did the film soundtrack, and featured John B. Smith, one of The Invaders featured in the film. Each had valuable contributions and questions about what it means to revisit and to recover the history presented in the film. I was touched particularly by John B.—by his wisdom and calm demeanor and by his considerate reflection on his own experience. He addressed himself to the young people in the audience–talking about how he was not raised to be a civil rights leader and never imagined it when he came home from serving in Vietnam. He only came to that consciousness and involvement when confronted with the injustice around him and in interaction with his peers in The Invaders. John B urged young people to remember that they have a chance to make a different future by learning lessons from the past, and that change is possible. I loved his gentle attitude towards his younger colleagues, on the panel and in the audience. It recalled the way he and The Invaders were treated by MLK in their final meeting. And, I shared his deep appreciation of the filmmakers, young White men from Memphis who took such time and care to bring this rich story to life. For me, as a person leaning toward the elder side of the dial, I was inspired when John B. urged us to find ways to tell the life stories that only we can tell, or even open the way for younger people to help tell these stories, as in the case of this film. Our stories provide context and illumination for the people that come after us in time. At the same time, they connect the thread with the people and the stories that came before us.