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Former Memphis Photog Recalls Strike, Brush with MLK

In CBS, Memphis, Reflections, Tennessee on January 15, 2011 at 7:30 am

Shelton Robinson

Motivations run aplenty in the television journalism world. Some want to be part of history; others want to make their own.

Still others find themselves in the middle of situations that escalate beyond their control. Such is the case of former television news photographer Shelton Robinson, who at the time worked for WREC-TV (now WREG). In a recent issue of the Tri-State Defender, he recalls a painful encounter while filming a sanitation workers’ strike:

I was using a Bell & Howell, 16mm hand camera powered by a wind-up spring. When all hell broke loose, I was filming the two groups of people, marchers and those charged with upholding the law, in a bloody fight with neither side ceding ground. One particular conflict was happening right in front of me so I swung my camera in that direction. This involved four police officers whaling on one marcher who was shielding his head with his hands. Off to my right an officer named Wilkinson was being led to an ambulance, blood streaming down the side of his face. When I turned my camera back towards the first melee, a Shelby County sheriff’s deputy was passing in front of me and I noticed his nametag had a strip of black tape over it, blocking his name and his face visor was pulled down.

When he saw what I was filming, he swung his baton at my camera trying to smash the lens to keep me from shooting any further. Instead of hitting the camera lens, his baton went lower and hit my left hand, the one holding the camera handle. Immediately the middle finger of my left hand split at the knuckle, the camera was pushed back into bony bridge over my left eye, split the skin and blood ran into that eye and down the front of my face.

I dropped to the ground fearing he would swing again.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Later in the recollection, Robinson mentions a meeting that would have grave significance decades after it happened:

…several days later, I was back at work and was filming a meeting in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel where the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) served Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with an order not to hold his next scheduled march. A photographer from The Commercial Appeal shot a picture from behind us showing Dr. King receiving the order. That picture hung in the National Civil Rights Museum located there in the Lorraine Motel for several years after that. In the foreground of the picture was the back of my balding head, my camera pressed up against my face and my two gauze-bound fingers holding the zoom handle on my camera lens.

Robinson is now forever a part of history. You can read the entire article here.

Though Martin Luther King Jr. Day isn’t until Monday, it should be remembered the other 364 days of the year as well, the sacrifice one man made for equality.

Regardless of your color, King’s message resonates today, more loudly than ever.

Broadcasters will interview thousands of people in their lifetime; Some messages will stand the test of time, others won’t; it’s our job as journalists to determine the difference.


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