John Burl Smith (Courtesy photo)

Editor’s Note: The Invaders, a militant group from Memphis, dared to make a difference during the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement. They’re now an integral part of history. This is the first installment of a two-part series.

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – There have been countless stories written about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from various perspectives that differ in scope from one author to another. But could the truth about the iconic civil rights leader be mired down in inaccuracies?

John Burl Smith has a rare perspective on Dr. King’s final hours that he believes, unequivocally, to be the truth. He was there in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, when he and Charles Cabbage met for two hours with the civil rights leader. 

Both Smith and Cabbage – co-founders of the Invaders, a 1960s militant group in Memphis drawn to the Black Power movement – worked out an agreement with Dr. King after he asked the Invaders to serve as marshals at the next march since the one on March 28, 1968 ended in a riot. 

Fifteen Invaders, Smith said, occupied rooms 315 and 316 at the motel in advance of their 1 p.m. meeting with Dr. King, who met with the group before meeting privately with Smith and Cabbage.

Smith said Dr. King shared his innermost thoughts with them about the Civil Rights Movement and his plan for the Poor People’s Campaign. Much of their conversation has been stored in his memory bank and now included in his upcoming book, “The 400th: From Slavery to Hip Hop.”  

He said the Invaders left the motel at 5:30 p.m. Dr. King was fatally shot by an assassin at 6:01 p.m. Smith has since told his story about the Invaders, their role in the Memphis sanitation strike, and the agreement with Dr. King that never came to past. 

But how did the Invaders become infamous and find themselves at a pivotal moment in the nation’s history when the Civil Rights Movement was teetering on the edge of uncertainty? 

“The Invaders, as a group, didn’t start that way,” said Smith, who credits Cabbage, a Morehouse College political science graduate, for introducing him to the concept of Black Power.

During that turbulent era, Dr. King was promoting nonviolence and civil disobedience, while Stokely Carmichael was espousing Black Power. “Nobody knew what that meant,” Smith said. “So, when Charles came home in 1967, he really brought Black Power to Memphis.”

Smith, an Air Force veteran, had gone to Vietnam. He was discharged in 1966. But Memphis had not changed while he was away. In fact, racist attitudes still prevailed, and anger welled up in him.

At the corner of Parkway and Third sat a full-service gas station. Smith pulled up in a 1962 Volkswagen. The station owner, a white male, “comes out, fills the tank, and tells me I didn’t have a gas cap. I knew I had one.” 

Smith said the man threatened to shoot him. “I’m a disabled veteran who just came from Vietnam,” he explained. When the police arrived, “they talked to the white guy. So, I ended up going to jail.”

Meanwhile, Cabbage and Coby Smith, who was one of two Black students to enroll at Rhodes College, developed a friendship in Atlanta. John Smith was given an introduction. Soon, the young radical scholars/intellectuals started talking about the political climate and the plight of African Americans.

“We realized we really needed to do some organizing,” said Smith, now a willing student of the Black Power movement. 

That year, in 1967, Archie Walter “A.W.” Willis Jr. – the first African American elected to the Tennessee General Assembly since the 1880s – was on the ballot in the crowded race for Memphis mayor.

Russell B. Sugarmon, an attorney, civil rights activist, political strategist, and a General Sessions judge later in his career, was Willis’ campaign manager. “So he recruits us to become a part of his (Willis) campaign,” Smith said.

Smith was learning the political system. A brainstorming session with the group soon followed, and the Black Organizing Project was born. At that time, Smith was working at the Memphis Defense Depot.

He lost that job and another one at Map South, he said, thanks to U.S. Rep. Dan Kuykendall, who represented the 8th and 9th congressional districts. “He got us fired from Map South,” Smith said, “because Russell Sugarmon got us working at Map South as community aides.”

Smith matriculated at Owen College before the merger with LeMoyne. Higher education was a worthy pursuit, but activism had become his way of life. To strengthen the movement, he turned to the youth. 

“We wanted to go out,” he said, “and get the youth involved in Black Power.”

They recruited the youth from high schools in Memphis and outside the district. “My apartment was sitting right in the back door of Carver (High School),” he said. “My back door faced Carver.”

Richard B. Thompson Sr. was Carver’s principal. Since the Board of Education had banned the wearing of afros and Afrocentric paraphernalia, “he was kicking kids out of school for that,” Smith said.

He said the students ended up at his apartment instead. One of them was a talented artist. “He had decorated a jacket and had written ‘Invaders’ on the back. I liked that. So I put the word Invaders on my old Army jacket.”

Meanwhile, the Memphis sanitation strike was simmering and caught Smith’s attention. He gave it his undivided attention from this point forward and drew the ire of local leaders and those from the strike committee who were running the show.

NEXT: The Invaders: Caught up in the Throes of the Sanitation Strike