HomeGrown: Reverend Harold Middlebrook

5:12 PM, Apr 9, 2013   |    comments
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"It's almost as if it was yesterday," says Rev. Harold Middlebrook, thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. "For some of us, it was yesterday."

Forty-three years ago, Rev. Harold Middlebrook witnessed the unthinkable.

"It's usually very difficult for me to talk about that time without crying."

His friend and fellow dreamer lay dying for the cause right in front of him, but Rev. Middlebrook's quest for equality began long before his time with Dr. King.

"We were po, not poor, po. We couldn't afford the o-r."

From an early age, his mother and grandmother encouraged him to dream big.

"My grandmother would say, 'Boy, always remember you're somebody! Your feet might be in the mud, but your head ought to be in the stars.'"

As a teen in Memphis, Middlebrook started registering voters and speaking as president of the Junior Civics Club.

"They said I had the gift of gab."

But he eyed the courtroom, not the pulpit.

"I was going to be the black Perry Mason. I was never going to lose a case."

Like his heroes, Middlebrook entered Morehouse College on scholarship.

"When I got to Atlanta, the sit-ins were HOT!"

Middlebrook was front and center and even got arrested with Dr. King. Yes, the two met in a jail cell. From then on, Middlebrook was one of Dr. King's right hand men. Finally answering the call to ministry, Middlebrook also served as youth pastor under Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

"As the movement grew, we grew with it."

They marched across the South.

"Danville, Virginia was rough. Gadsden, Alabama was maddening. And, Selma was rough."

The lows were unbelievably low, but the highs were joyous, even miraculous.

"Everybody bows to pray and they stand up and start singing, 'Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round."

Birmingham, 1963, armed with a higher power, young protesters faced hatred in the eye.

"The fire men opened up the fire hydrants, and no water came out. And, the policemen are standing there seeing no water coming out of the hoses, and they're crying and they wouldn't turn the dogs lose. For me, that remains still a high point."

Five years later, Middlebrook was in Memphis encouraging garbage employees.

"You'd see these men walking home smelly. These were men who were in your church. When they went on strike, I was one of the first persons they called."

But the men needed reinforcement, so Middlebrook called Dr. King.

"I put a little stuff on him. I called Daddy King (Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr.) and said, 'Daddy, everybody's been here. You've got to persuade Doc to come and Daddy did.' He said, 'M.L. (Martin Luther King, Jr.), you need to go and encourage those garbage men.'"

Middlebrook not only witnessed Dr. King's final speech, but also his final moments, April 4, 1968.

"I'm on the ground in the parking lot, standing right next to Jesse Jackson."

King was leaning over the Lorraine Motel balcony.

"And, he stood up. We heard the sound, and he was no more."

Middlebrook carried on Dr. King's dream and his ministry. He came to Knoxville in 1977 and has served as a pastor in East Tennessee ever since.

But now, a great grandfather, he's turning the movement over to a younger generation.

"I encourage young people now if you see change work out it while you're young."

Harold Middlebrook, born in Memphis, HomeGrown in Tennessee.

"The basic core of what makes me tick is Tennessee. I'm Tennessee born, I'm Tennessee bread. When I die, I'll be Tennessee dead."

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