Talking with a Legend- An Interview with the Reverend Harold Middlebrook
I sat down with Reverend Harold Middlebrook in mid-November to interview him about his life and its many rich experiences.
For those that don’t know him, Reverend Middlebrook is a legend within the civil rights movement, having spent considerable time working for change in his hometown of Memphis, then later in Atlanta and Knoxville, TN. He was a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was with Dr. King when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.
Reverend Middlebrook has a wealth of knowledge and history about happenings and I’ve been blessed to become friends with him over the past several years.
Reverend Middlebrook is currently a retired minister of Canaan Baptist Church in East Knoxville but is still active in a variety of groups in the Knoxville area. Here are some highlights from my interview with him that hit on many topics.
GROWING UP DURING CHANGING AND CHALLENGING TIMES
Reverend Middlebrook recalls the time in the 1950’s when he was a teenager. “I grew up in a time when there was a real move in this country toward a mindset toward African Americans struggling for freedom and equality. There had been a fight for that all along, but the 1954 Supreme Court decision that said public schools must desegregate with deliberate speed was a major impetus.”
He describes the environment in Memphis, where he was born, that was antagonistic to African Americans. “Back when I was growing up, policemen ran two to a car. And if 5 or 6 African American men were standing on the corner just talking, you’d have the police car pull up and the officers would yell, ‘Scatter.’ And you scattered. If you didn’t, you got arrested. There was a judge in Memphis by the name of Judge Beverly Bouche. And if you got arrested, you understood to try to make good with your boss so he wouldn’t fire you because if you were African American and went before Judge Bouche 11-29 was your sentence.”
Reverend Middlebrook described the situation in the school system, in which segregation was the reality and African American students were the recipients of sub-par treatment. “When they told us we were getting new books or new desks, we really knew what that meant. That the white kids were getting new books and new desks and we were getting the ones that they had marked up or wrote in.”
Middlebrook discusses the contradictions that existed at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where their famous ducks received better treatment than African Americans. “Peabody had the ducks. Well back then African Americans couldn’t come through the front door of the hotel. And if you worked at the hotel you had to come in the back and if you were in the lobby you had to be cleaning. But at a certain point in the day at the Peabody they put out a red carpet, they start playing music early so that everybody knows its getting close to time for the ducks to come down. And they come down on a special elevator. And they waddle over to that fountain. When I talk about that now, people look at me funny. But that was the real racism we dealt with back then.”
MIDDLEBROOK’S FIRST EXPOSURE TO MLK
Reverend Middlebrook was first introduced to Dr. Martin Luther King while he was a teenager. He remembers growing up that one of the things his family insisted on the children doing was having breakfast. He recalls his grandfather reading the “Commercial Appeal” every morning with the back page having highlights of important events going on throughout the country. And it was on that back page that he first saw a picture and mentioning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middlebrook recalls, “That was the first African American I had ever seen in our newspaper.”
EARLY INVOLVEMENT – VOTER REGISTRATION AND FIRST ARREST
Reverend Middlebrook’s first activism came in high school, when he was part of the junior civic club whose parent was the Bluff City Shelby County Civic clubs.
“I became president of the 13th ward junior civic club. And the regular civic club had a contest to see who could register the most voters- they really didn’t expect the young people to participate. I was in the tenth grade at the time. And every day when I got out of school I went out to knock on doors to register people to vote. And we got people registered. And lo and behold I got the fifty-dollar prize for registering the largest number of people.”
A few years later he became involved in the first sit-ins for the civil rights movement in Memphis.
“It was interesting that when the sit-ins started in 1960 I was a senior in high school and I was the president of the student council. And they were about to kick me out of high school and keep me from graduating because I got arrested for being present at the sit-ins at the public library. In Memphis the sit-ins did not start at the lunch counters. In Memphis the sit-ins started at the libraries. I technically wasn’t arrested because I was a juvenile- and while everyone was being hauled off to jail I was carried to juvenile court because I was too young.”
“For us in 1960 going to jail was a badge of honor. A badge of respect, because you were standing up for something you believed in.”
BECOMING A MINISTER AND A COMMUNITY ACTIVIST
When Middlebrook graduated from high school his plans were to go off to college and become the black “Perry Mason.” He recalls,
“I was going to be an attorney and be good at it. Everybody in my church and in my city in Memphis that knew me knew I was going to be a minister- except me. I really tried to run away from that. But the drive and the urge to be a minister never left me. And so I finally called home and told the pastor of the church, Reverend A.R. Williams at Greater Whitestone Baptist Church, that I would accept my call. I didn’t have a choice.”
“I preached my first sermon and received my license on January 1, 1961. That calling to be a minister and the calling to be a community activist I think were two of the turning points in my life. A whole new perspective on life came. It became not as important to make big money. But how you’d serve the community. There was a song they used to sing in the church. It goes, ‘If I can help somebody as I pass along then my living shall not be in vain. If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song. If I can show somebody he’s travelling wrong. Then my living shall not be in vain.’ And so that became a kind of motto for my life.”
MIDDLEBROOK MEETS MLK AND SITS-IN WITH HIM
After graduating Middlebrook travelled to Atlanta to continue involvement in the civil rights movement. It was there that he first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Ebeneezer church. Middlebrook recalls, “Dr. King came over to speak to us about nonviolence and love and direct action. And somebody said to him, ‘Dr. King, it isn’t enough for you to tell us. Why don’t you show us? And come sit in with us.’
“And Dr. King said, ‘Let me make a phone call.’” King agreed to sit in with Middlebrook and others. The stores the sit-ins occurred at was Richardson’s and Davidson’s, which were the two big stores in Atlanta. Middlebrook and King got arrested and spent time together in jail.
“And so every day we would wake up and we would spend the whole day listening to him teach about Ghandi, Jesus, and nonviolence and love. And I think that had such an impact on my life.”
“We sat in jail and listened to the last major Presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. And what a debate it was! And I got out because I was sick. I had developed a case of pneumonia. Eventually everyone was bailed out except Dr. King, because they had trumped up another charge on him. He had been arrested earlier in Decatur for driving a white poet with her in the front seat. And in 1960’s Georgia that was illegal- he could have driven her like ‘Driving Ms. Daisy’ and that would have been legal. So they had suspended his license and put him on probation. And with his arrest at the sit-in they used that earlier charge to send him to the state penitentiary.”
AFRICAN AMERICANS SWITCH SUPPORT FROM NIXON TO KENNEDY
Middlebrook describes the history of African Americans switching support from Nixon to Kennedy.
“With Dr. King in jail in Georgia, we were protesting throughout the South his imprisonment. The civil rights movement approached Nixon then to get his support, because Nixon had a strong base of support among blacks in the South. When approached, Nixon said that he couldn’t support the protests or King’s release. They asked him to at least call Mrs. King, and he said that he couldn’t get involved in the issue.”
“Well Sargent Shriver, who was part of the Kennedy campaign, was approached about talking to Kennedy about it. Bobby Kennedy tried to block it saying that JFK’s involvement would mess up their Southern strategy. Shriver told JFK that it wouldn’t hurt for him to make a call or two on MLK’s behalf. And so Kennedy called Governor Vandiver – and that word got out. And then he called Mrs. King, and told her that he was praying for her husband and for his release, and pledged to do everything they could to help the situation. And this became headlines throughout the nation.”
“And so Dr. King got out. And we were at the church. There were thousands of people at Ebeneezer and all out in the street because Dr. King was coming back out of jail. At the service, Dr. King’s father got up and said, ‘I have never voted for a Democrat in my life. But I’m gonna pack my suitcase and I’m going all over this country hollering “Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy!’”
“And the rest is history. Following that race a little slogan started.”
‘Hands that have picked cotton have now elected a President!’
ESCAPING DEPRESSION AFTER dR. kING’S ASSASSINATION
Reverend Middlebrook was at the Lorraine Motel on April 4th, 1968 at the time Dr. King was assassinated. He talks about almost going into a state of depression in the weeks after the tragic event. Following the funeral, leaders of the movement held a retreat in South Carolina at Frogmore. Reverend Ralph Abernathy came in and preached a sermon that was focused on a passage from Genesis- “Behold the Dreamer cometh. Come let us slay him. And say that some evil beast had devoured him. And we shall see what will become of his Dream.”
Reverend Middlebrook recalls, “And suddenly it hit me. Martin was the Dreamer. But he didn’t have the dream by himself. He had shared that dream with so many other people that now it was the dream of a community. And so that’s what you give your life to. And the cause has kept me going for more than fifty years. And I suspect it will be a driving force for the rest of my life.”
LESSON FROM GRANDMOTHER COMES TO PLAY WITH JESSE JACKSON
“When I was five years old my grandmother said something that has stuck with me all my life. She said, ‘Son, your feet might be in the mud but your head ought to be in the stars because you are somebody.’ Her support of me and this statement gave me great confidence as I grew and became a man.”
Later Reverend Middlebrook recalls how that statement came up in his head. The setting was Mississippi shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and he and other civil rights leaders including Jesse Jackson were organizing the “March Against Fear” from Memphis to Mississippi.
At a rally he recalls, “Jesse was hollering, ‘I am somebody!’ And Stokely Carmichael was hollering ‘black power!’ and I was standing there watching. Jesse said to me, ‘Man, you don’t act like you really excited about I am somebody!’ And I said, ‘I am excited Jesse!’ And he said, ‘You don’t act like you really excited.’ And I said, ‘Jesse I am excited!’ And Jesse said, ‘You not really getting into it.’ And I said, ‘Jesse, your problem is you are too late. Big momma told me when I was five and six that I was somebody!’”
WORK IN 1980’S FOR HOLSTON HEALTHCARE AND GOLDEN AGE RETIREMENT VILLAGE
Reverend Middlebrook moved to Knoxville in February of 1977 and was first a pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist church for three years and then formed Canaan Baptist Church of Christ on Beaman Lake Road where he pastored for 34 years.
Reverend Middlebrook continued his community involvement in the early 1980’s by leading the charge to build a nursing home facility in East Knoxville along with a retirement community which would be called Golden Age Retirement Village.
“I saw people who were disabled and in order to go to a nursing home they were sending them to Jefferson county and Blount county. My concern was how are their relatives supposed to get to see them?”
“I remember one day when my friend Reverend W.C. Parker, who was also a strong activist, and I went to a nursing home to visit with a man we knew. And while there we were going down the halls and we saw this gentleman. And we stopped in to talk to him. And he says, ‘Do you know my children?’ And we said, ‘Your children?’ He said, ‘yeah.’ We were in Blount county. And he said, ‘In Knoxville I’ve got three daughters and a son, and I have not seen them since they put me in the nursing home two years ago.’”
As Middlebrook explained, there was no skilled nursing home care facility in East Knox county until Holston Healthcare was built. Middlebrook says, “Now of course when we got the certificate of need the powers that be in nursing care- the nursing homes- fought us getting the certificate of need. And they fought us with HUD and the banks in getting it funded. And but for the help of Lawler, with Lawler Wood, I don’t know if we would have gotten it built in the timeframe that we had. But we were able for him to step in and help us. And some people said, ‘Well I thought that was NHC.’ Well NHC runs it but we built it because people out of this area were having to go to Blount or Jefferson county or wherever for skilled and intermediate care nursing. Now they can be in the area in which they live and people can come see them.”
Along with Holston Healthcare, Middlebrook worked for the creation of Golden Age Retirement Village, which was opened in 1983 and built at a cost of $3,855,200. “When we got ready to build Golden Age Retirement Village, at that time HUD told us that we would have to build 100 efficiency apartments. I thank God for Senator Howard Baker and Congressman John Duncan, Sr. because I got them off the floor of the Senate and the House by phone. And they said, ‘No, we’ll take care of it.’ So we instead built 100 apartment units. 95 one bedroom, 6 two bedroom- because I didn’t want to see my mother and my grandmother in an efficiency. And I didn’t want to see others- because in their last days let them have some dignity about their life.”
In 2016 Golden Age Retirement Village was renovated at a cost of $5,000,000. Middlebrook explains the upgrades- “Originally when we built it we put a large wash room and people could carry their wash in and wash. Well many of those folks have aged in place and so just getting to the wash room had become a challenge. During the recent renovation, we put a washer, dryer, dishwasher, and new flooring in every apartment. Again, because what you do for the least of these is so important. And I go over there, and people stop me and they say, ‘Oh, you don’t know what this means to our lives.’”
Middlebrook goes on to explain the unique culture and community that has been built and exists at Golden Age. “In the building we have what is called a ‘Partnership Agreement.’ Every apartment, two apartments across from each other, have to have this agreement. And they all have little door hangers with each day of the week on it. On each morning if by ten am your hall partner across the hall has not put up today’s date then you are supposed to go get the manager, who will check the apartment to be sure the person is alright.”
The larger community plays a big role in making the residents of Golden Age feel truly at home. Middlebrook explains, “We have Meals on Wheels brought in. We also have a garden spot and now the young people from Canaan church where I pastored next door work the garden spot and give all the vegetables that’s growing to whichever resident wants them. To me that’s important. It’s important to bring in activities for those residents. Every month there is a birthday party and whoever is born in that month celebrates. On holidays they have cookouts. This past Saturday Canaan church took Thanksgiving dinner to the people in the complex. People from OBC have taken dinners. I don’t mean little containers. They take major food over- eat as much as you want. And that is so important to me.”
DESPITE MUCH PROGRESS, PROBLEMS STILL EXIST IN US
“We got people right now who are living with social security who are having to make decisions about ‘do I buy medicine, and if I do what do I eat?’ Recently I went into a store and a lady was buying 15 or 20 cans of cat food. And I thought to myself, boy that cat’s going to eat good. And I get to the register and I say this to the clerk, cause I know the clerk. And the clerk says, ‘She ain’t got no cat. Said that’s her food.’ And I started crying because it does not make sense.”
CONTINUING TO BE INVOLVED DURING RETIREMENT AND PASTORING FAMILIES DURING THEIR TIME OF NEED
In the time I’ve known Reverend Middlebrook you would never know that he is a retired minister, as he spends much of his week travelling throughout the state officiating funerals for members of his congregations. I’ve been amazed at his ability to be so upbeat when dealing with the crisis of family members passing. He discusses the call to duty he lives in helping these families deal with the grief of a loved one.
“You don’t want to see folks go. Because all of these are folks that you’ve known for many years- many of them are your same age or they are a little older. When you see them go you know that part of a generation of our culture is going. But you also know that encouragement must be given to those that are left behind. Even though Canaan has a new pastor, people say to me, ‘He’s my preacher, but you’ll always be my pastor.’ Folks tell their children, ‘When I die, he’s got to come back and do my eulogy.’ And so I try to meet the families’ request in terms of helping them ease the grief.”
“And so your body gets tired. But as Rosa Parks said there is something about your spirt and your mind that renews your body. And so you leave Knoxville on a Friday or Saturday, you do whatever you gotta do Saturday, Sunday, you spend all day travelling back Monday and your body says ‘Schew!’, but then you wake up Tuesday morning saying ‘But I got to do this’ and you forget you are supposed to be tired.”
WHAT MIDDLEBROOK WANTS TO BE REMEMBERED FOR
Middlebrook refers to an African philosophy about the “living dead” which basically states that if a person makes a contribution and then they die, as long as there is one person left alive who can remember what the person who died tried to do, then you never die.
He goes on, “I don’t want to die. And I don’t mean to say that I don’t want to die a physical death. I’m going to die. But I hope that somebody will remember- he tried to feed the hungry. He tried to do something politically to make life better. That’s what it’s all about. So folks don’t need to send flowers. Just remember. Take the money and put it into a scholarship fund. Send another kid to school.”
Reverend Middlebrook is truly a community treasure and I hope you have enjoyed these snippets from our interview- and I hope you get to meet him someday if you haven’t already!