On Martin Luther King Day, hours after Barack Obama was sworn in as president for the second time, Carroll Murphy, longtime community leader, stopped by to visit.
Now in his 70s, Murphy remembers segregation, remembers how limited the lives of black people were, remembers what was done to change things.
Before the civil rights movement, Johnson City was no different than any other Southern town. The schools were segregated; there were separate waiting rooms for blacks; one theater — the Tennessee — admitted black people but they had to sit upstairs; even the white gynecologists wouldn’t see black women until after 5 p.m.
Murphy remembers going downtown with two of his children. There was a drug store on Market Street that served ice cream cones, and the kids were too young to know about white and black.
“We want ice cream cones!,” they said and ran inside the drug store and sat down at the counter. Mr. Murphy followed them in and stood behind them. He didn’t sit down. “I wasn’t going to say anything to them,” he said. He just watched and waited to see how his children would be treated.
“The woman behind the counter looked at me and smiled,” he said. “She handed them their ice cream cones.”
It could have gone the other way — one never knew.
In the 1950s, Murphy attended Langston High School, Johnson City’s segregated school for black students. “When I finished high school, there were only two options for black men — a janitor job or the service,” Murphy said. “Really, the people who amounted to anything left here because there wasn’t anything to do at that time. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school and Johnson City.”
Instead of leaving, however, he married his “precious wife” Shirley, with whom he has six children, and stayed in Johnson City. Murphy didn’t work as a janitor, he sold insurance.
And though his family responsibilities were considerable, he joined the Progressive League, which drew its members from the black churches in town, about 14 of them at the time, Murphy remembered. It was just the beginning of his community service.
And while he is quick to point to others — Dr. Eugene Kilgore and John Morange (pronounce Mo-raney) as the leaders of the black community — Murphy did his part.
“Dr. Eugene Kilgore was a dentist, a fine gentleman. He had as many white patients as black patients,” Murphy said. “He helped old people get their retirement checks.”
And he worked to improve the lives of black people in Johnson City and to end segregation.
The purpose of the Progressive Club was to secure better jobs and educations for blacks, Murphy said, and part of their work involved calling on white business owners to encourage the hiring of black workers.
“I went with Dr. Kilgore to talk to Dan Mayes of Mayes Tool Company. We set up an appointment and talked about hiring blacks,” Murphy said.
Mayes told the men his secretary said blacks and whites couldn’t work together. They wouldn’t get along.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t,” Murphy said. “They’ve never worked together before.”
The two men went to several restaurants, asking the owners to consider hiring black workers. One of those restaurants was the Texas Steer owned by the Onks family. “Those people were more than wonderful to us,” Murphy said. “They always welcomed us.”
Education was another issue. Though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation was illegal and had struck down the “separate but equal” argument for segregation, Johnson City, in 1965, still had separate schools for blacks and whites.
The school system had instituted a voluntary grade-a-year desegregation plan and by ’65 classes were integrated through fourth grade, a Jan. 16, 1965, Kingsport News article said.
Too slow, the Progressive League said. “In 1965 we went to see John Seward, chairman of the school board, and talked to him about integration.” Seward mentioned the grade-a-year plan, but the time for waiting was over.
The Progressive League sued in federal court. They hired an attorney out of Knoxville to represent them. “It cost each of us $25 to pay for this,” Murphy said. “I got money from Mr. (Herb) Shulman and Carolyn Moore. I couldn’t afford the $25. I only made $32 a week.”
Judge Charles G. Neese in Greeneville was to hear the case, but the proceedings didn’t get far. On Friday, Jan. 15, 1965, Neese ordered the complete desegregation of the Johnson City School System by the fall of 1965, the Kingsport News said. He also ordered the school board to admit eight black children — five to Northside Elementary School and three to Stratton Elementary School — immediately.
“They started on Monday,” Murphy said. “Their parents walked them to school. It was a sudden thrust.”
It was only natural to speak of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his national holiday. Murphy said he met Dr. and Mrs. King, quite by accident, in Atlanta, before Dr. King had become a household name.
“I was in Atlanta with Mr. Grady Harris. His daughter was doing nurse’s training at Grady Hospital. We went to Pascal’s to eat and sat at a table for four. The restaurant was crowded so they asked if we minded sharing the table with another couple.
“We introduced ourselves. If you’d never met (Dr. King) you would be surprised. He was so humble and quiet. Mrs. King was like me — chatter, chatter, chatter. It surprised me, I didn’t think he’d be that type of man.”
In 1967, a year before King was assassinated, Murphy and his brother-in-law Charles McConnell stayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “My brother-in-law stayed in the room next to where Dr. King would stay.” They stood on the balcony where Dr. King would die.
Later, Murphy visited the Lorraine Motel, which had become the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum includes the Young and Morrow Building where King’s assassin James Earl Ray positioned himself for the killing.
“You can still see that apartment. Cigarette butts are still on the floor,” Murphy said. “It was the ideal shot. He couldn’t have missed.”
Years later, as part of his work with a prison ministry, Murphy would cross paths with James Early Ray at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. “It gave me chills when I looked at him, a little white-haired man at a sewing machine,” he said.
In his lifetime, Murphy has served on 31 boards. He worked at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, for 35 years. He was a certified funeral director and helped open Birchette Mortuary. He was the first black chairman of the Johnson City Power Board in the 1980s.
Murphy and his wife raised six children and sent them to college. His children enjoy opportunities he could never have dreamed of, and yet, he said, “We haven’t gone too far in race relations. I knew my kids couldn’t find jobs they were qualified for in Johnson City. Things aren’t much better. I think even now young black people have to leave.”
He said the 2012 presidential election “broke my heart” when he saw how divided the country was. More than 9 out of 10 black men and women voted for Obama, and nearly two-thirds of white men voted for Mitt Romney.
“I am no Holly Roller, but if people would really commit to the Lord, if people would love one another,” Murphy said. “You can legislate to make you sit at a table with me, but it can’t make you love me.
“Racism is taught. (My wife and I) didn’t teach that nonsense, we didn’t have time. I wanted to love people.”