By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — A small town in Mississippi felt eerie to Stanley Campbell Sr. in March when he was scouting for a spot to film a character that he’d created to pay tribute to the “foot soldiers” of the civil rights movement.
He described the area as wooded with trees hovering over him. He’d mistakenly turned down a beaten path and noticed that pieces of clothing were strewn where he’d ventured a quarter mile on foot.
“I’d turned down the wrong road,” Campbell said. He was looking for an ideal location to shoot video of himself as the Memphis “Foot” Man – but not down this eerie path into nothingness.
He was unaware that he’d veered not far from Philadelphia, MS., where civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were murdered and buried in 1964.
He shuddered just thinking about their gruesome death and regretted that he’d gone off course. “I don’t want to do that again,” he admonished himself. “I didn’t know what I was thinking.”
He’d begun imagining Black bodies swinging from taut tree limbs, the Klan, the worst. His nerves were frayed. Then Billy Holiday’s hauntingly graphic song, “Strange Fruit,” came to his mind.
She sang: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees…”
“I was hoping I wouldn’t see bodies hanging from trees,” said Campbell, adding, “I was in a time zone that went back to the 1960s.”
Then it dawned on him that the wooded area was conducive for a video shoot after all.
“It was the best decision I’d made,” said Campbell, a visual artist, playwright, producer, activist, humanitarian, and owner of The House of Mtenzi, a museum that honors his late mother, Thelma Brownlee.
Campbell, the youngest of nine children, had been to the 58th annual [Edmund Pettus] Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma, Ala., and wandered through the heart of Mississippi en route to Memphis.
“I was in the Deep Delta,” said Campbell, and transformed himself into the Memphis “Foot” Man, one who travels “one step at a time” to “remind, educate and rebuild,” his motto.
Since his character’s creation in March, Campbell’s Memphis “Foot” Man has traveled to once turbulent areas during the civil rights movement where gallant foot soldiers trod by day and night seeking justice and freedom.
He’s been to Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., where The Little Rock Nine in 1957 were confronted by an angry white mob and the Arkansas National Guard for trying to enter the school building.
He also traveled to Tulsa, Okla., where a white mob in 1921 rained down bombs on “Black Wall Street” in the Greenwood District and massacred scores of Black residents in this wealthy Black community.
At home, in Memphis, the “Foot” man called attention to Room 306 at the National Civil Rights Museum, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying on that fateful day in 1968 when it was The Lorraine Motel.
The Memphis “Foot” Man, Campbell explained, embodies “the image of all the civil rights fighters – the 1960s trench coat, the skinny necktie, the shades, the brim” – who fought valiantly to change the status quo.
“When I see the face, the image, of the Memphis ‘Foot’ Man, it gives me a visible illusion of the past, the present and the future,” said Drew McCraven III, CEO of Millennial Entertainment and a Campbell ally.
“The picture from Selma, Ala., that he took puts you in the mindset of what our ancestors had to go through in the process of their struggle when they marched across the bridge in Alabama, in Selma,” McCraven explained.
He continued: “When I look at the picture of him in the mask with the flag of the United States, it takes me through the struggle of where we are now and where we are going. That’s what he represents.”