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The Institute: In Depth

Remembering Adjua Naantaanbuu, A ‘Hidden Hero’ of the Civil Rights Movement

A photo in a $50,000 city exhibit misidentifies her, adding to her obscurity

This photo exhibit installed with a $50,000 city grant at Memphis International Airport misidentifies the woman walking beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his final trip to Memphis in 1968. She is Adjua Naantaanbuu, an unsung activist who picked up King at the airport on April 3, 1968, and drove him to a strategy meeting. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

The picture hangs in a corner in bustling Memphis International Airport, a timeless black-and-white photo depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last trip to Memphis.

Snapped 53 years ago, it shows King strolling through this very terminal shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman on April 3, 1968, the day before he was shot and killed here by a sniper.

An accompanying caption says King is walking with Dorothy Cotton, the sole female member of his executive staff.

But there’s a problem.

That’s not Dorothy Cotton.

Friends and family have identified her as Adjua Naantaanbuu, an unsung Memphis activist who died in 2008 at age 75. Naantaanbuu was there that day to greet King, and she drove him from the airport to a strategy meeting in South Memphis.

“That’s sad that they could get something so obvious so wrong,” said King biographer David Garrow, who urged officials to fix the mistake. Seen by thousands each year, the picture is one of 12 by the late civil rights photographer Ernest Withers assembled with a $50,000 grant from city government to commemorate King’s final flights in and out of the airport.

The caption misidentifies Naantaanbuu as Dorothy Cotton, a member of King’s executive staff. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

The matter will be reviewed, said Airport Authority commissioner Jack Sammons and Rosalind Withers, director of the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery.

As Memphis celebrates a pandemic-delayed Africa in April festival today (Friday, Aug. 6) through Sunday — an annual event Naantaanbuu helped organize — former colleagues say the larger error involves more than a picture: It’s the way history has overlooked the long-time activist.

Her decades of contributions include a daring challenge to Memphis’ Jim Crow code in 1958 when she walked into the Memphis Zoo on a whites-only day, an early act of defiance that helped pave the way for integration of the city’s parks, pools and golf courses.

“This is a very courageous woman in the tradition of Ida B. Wells,’’ said family friend Coby Smith, 75, an activist who co-founded The Invaders, a Black Power organization popular in Memphis in the late 1960s.

In 1968, when she was known as Tarlease Mathews, she served as one of a handful of women on the Sanitation Workers Strike strategy committee. She became an early adherent of Afrocentrism, exchanging her Western garb for African head ties and flowing garments and advocating Black pride and empowerment. She eventually changed her name to Adjua Naantaanbuu and founded Memphis Kwanzaa International.

Her activism frightened some in Memphis, and she became a target of the FBI’s infamous domestic intelligence program.

“That’s why she’s not recognized,’’ said fellow activist David Acey, who said Naantaanbuu’s positions made many people — Black and white — uncomfortable.

Local historians know of no official plaques or memorials recognizing Naantaanbuu.

Her name isn’t among the more than 300 Women of Achievement honorees in Memphis, nor does she appear on the Memphis Women’s Legacy Trail, a project recognizing “the women of Memphis, Tennessee that have made a lasting impact on the city through their work and lives.”

Acey’s view on Naantaanbuu’s invisibility is one of several offered to explain why she’s so overlooked.

She operated in an environment where men’s contributions were valued over women’s, some say. She wasn’t among the movement’s elite social circles, say others. Even her association with King may be a factor. A dinner she hosted for King in her tiny Binghampton home hours before the assassination became the focus of a libel suit she filed years later against the civil rights leader’s closet aide after he leveled unproven allegations about her conduct that night.

Supporters say it’s time to set the record straight.

“She needs to be recognized,” said longtime Memphis civil rights leader Rev. LaSimba Gray, who was so inspired by Naantaanbuu’s teachings that he changed his first name from Leo to LaSimba.

“She had long-range impact.”

Defeating Jim Crow

Born into a large Memphis family, Naantaanbuu graduated from Manassas High School in 1952 and became a licensed barber before joining the nascent civil rights movement as a 25-year-old mother raising her own small family.

Her first significant contribution came without any official backing of a civil rights organization.

On a balmy, autumn day in 1958, less than two years after the seminal Montgomery Bus Boycott, Naantaanbuu and a friend challenged Memphis’ rigid social order by walking onto the grounds of the Memphis Zoo on a Sunday. Local Jim Crow code allowed Black people to visit the zoo just one day a week – on Thursday.

Naantaanbuu toured the zoo for an hour on Oct. 12, 1958, before a police officer stopped her. According to news accounts, five squad cars with as many as 15 uniformed police arrived. Naantaanbuu would later tell a reporter that when she informed the officers that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregation illegal in public parks, one replied, “That does not apply down here.”

Asked if his organization was behind efforts by independent activists to penetrate the zoo’s racial barriers, then-NAACP attorney H.T. Lockard said, “I have never known the NAACP to be a party to such a thing.”

Naantaanbuu was on her own. The move was risky, but it was one she relished.

“She had a spirit about her that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said her son, Zulu Naantaanbuu.

She quickly found support from a small, upstart civil rights organization called the Binghampton Civic League. It’s president, O.Z. Evers, was in the middle of his own struggle. Inspired by Rosa Parks, Evers had challenged Memphis’ segregated transit system in April 1956 by taking a seat in the front of a bus. His suit, backed by Lockard and the NAACP, was still winding through the courts when Naantaanbuu defied the zoo’s white-onlv rule.

Despite his earlier disassociation, Lockard filed a federal suit on Naantaanbuu’s behalf the following January seeking integration of the zoo and the city’s public parks, carefully telling reporters it was sponsored by the Binghampton Civic League, not the NAACP.

The suit was later dismissed after the zoo dropped its segregated visitation days, but before Naantaanbuu’s attorneys could ask a judge to desegregate the zoo’s restaurant and bathroom facilities or pursue the larger question of integration in the city’s parks.

The suit led to another that resulted in a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring the speedy desegregation of Memphis’ parks, golf courses, art galleries and boat docks.

“It’s extremely important,” local historian Wayne Dowdy said of Naantaanbuu’s early defiance.

“It is a part of the overall pressure campaign” that ended legal segregation in Memphis, he said.

FBI surveillance

Like many civil rights activists who challenged the status quo, Naantaanbuu drew the attention of the FBI.

Records released in 2013 show the FBI’s Memphis office tracked her activities in file No. 157-1678, labeled “Tarlease Mathews,” as part of a massive Cold War effort to detect and monitor communists, agitators, subversives and others considered threats to the nation’s internal security.

The file’s full contents remain unknown.

Records documenting civil rights photographer Withers’ secret role as a paid FBI informant show the FBI took an intense interest in Naantaanbuu’s growing militancy as well as that of Evers, her Binghampton neighbor.

A 1963 report says Withers told an FBI agent that Evers had complained that the NAACP was “a conservative organization’’ as he began aligning with organizations pursuing a more aggressive agenda.

Among other tips, Withers told the FBI that Naantaanbuu was a “staunch” supporter of a confrontational pastor detested by whites in rural West Tennessee; that she was “most active” in supporting Memphis’ striking sanitation workers; and that she’d once raised money to bail a militant activist out of jail.

The FBI sharpened its focus in 1968 when the city’s 1,300 sanitation employees walked out in a wildcat strike after two co-workers were crushed to death in a malfunctioning packer.

The conflict triggered daily marches and rallies. Naantaanbuu played a significant role. As a member of an emergency strategy committee headed by Rev. James Lawson, she helped organize protests and direct meetings.

“She was one of our key leaders. We had a number of strategy meetings at her home. Her home was always open. She was at practically every march,” the late Rev. Ezekiel Bell said in 2008 after Naantaanbuu’s passing.

Adjua Naantaanbuu’s Binghampton home. On the evening of April 3, 1968, as Tarlease Mathews, she hosted a small dinner here that’s believed to have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s last home-cooked meal. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

One of the strike’s iconic images shows her and Rev. P.L. Rowe leading an assembly of strikers in the Memphis City Council chamber in the singing of, “I Shall Not Be Moved.’’

King’s final days

The strike drew support from national leaders like King who came to Memphis on March 18, 1968, to speak at a rally. He returned 10 days later to lead a mass demonstration that went disastrously wrong when youths in the back of the march began breaking windows and looting. King returned on April 3, determined to lead a peaceful march to preserve his reputation as leader of the nonviolent movement.

His plane arrived from Atlanta at 10:33 a.m. that day, at Gate 17, where Naantaanbuu greeted King and aides Ralph Abernathy, Bernard Lee, Dorothy Cotton and Andrew Young.

Also along was Southern Christian Leadership Conference accountant Jim Harrison, who, like Withers, doubled as a paid FBI informant. With help from the Memphis Police Department, the FBI attempted to closely monitor King’s movements while he was in Memphis.

After a quick press briefing, King and his entourage walked through the airport and out under the portico to Naantaanbuu’s waiting Buick Electra. As two plainclothes police officers approached, Naantaanbuu grew upset.

“We didn’t ask for any police protection,’’ she told them, according to MPD reports.

Naantaanbuu drove King to a strategy meeting at Rev. James Lawson’s church, and back to the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader and his entourage checked in, reports say.

For all of Naantaanbuu’s contributions to the movement, she’s most often recalled in connection with an unproven allegation involving King’s behavior that night.

In a controversial 1989 memoir, Abernathy alleged that he and King ate dinner in a Memphis home following the famous “Mountaintop Speech” King gave on the evening of April 3, 1968.

Abernathy said in his book, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” that he fell asleep after dinner in a living room easy chair and awoke as “Martin and his friend came out of the bedroom.”

Though Naantaanbuu wasn’t named in the book, she sued Abernathy contending she’d been defamed among a circle of people who knew she’d hosted the meal. Abernathy died months after his book was published, and Naantaanbuu’s suit eventually was dismissed.

“Abernathy lied,’’ Naantaanbuu’s sister, Cleopra Mitchell, said in 2013.

Mitchell recalled a simple meal of steak and potatoes punctuated by King’s storytelling. He talked of “Yoki’’ — his daughter, Yolanda — and his life, including the day he was stabbed by a mentally ill woman during a book signing in Harlem in 1958.

“King laughed about the police sedans that had trailed him through the city since he arrived that morning at the Memphis airport,’’ Mitchell said.

“They tried to keep up with us. But we lost them,’’ Mitchell recalled King saying.

A ‘hidden hero’

Shortly after King’s assassination, Naantaanbuu began changing her look. She abandoned her pressed hair for a natural Afro hairstyle.

In time she became a leading proponent in Memphis of Afrocentrism, the study and celebration of traditional African culture. The prime venue for her teachings was The Village Barber Shop, the longtime business she owned and operated in Orange Mound.

Adjua Naantaanbuu in 1971. (Courtesy Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis – Press Scimitar collection)

“She would set up shop in her barber shop every day, 24 hours a day, promoting the culture of Africa. Dressing the part, talking the part, change their name, and everything,’’ said David Acey, an activist in the 1960s and 70s and now a retired communications professor at the University of Memphis.

Acey and his wife, Yvonne, teamed with Naantaanbuu and others to organize two celebrations: The Africa In April festival and Kwanzaa, the annual holiday season celebration of African American culture. The Aceys focused on Africa In April; Naantaanbuu on Kwanzaa.

“We tried to educate the whole community about the importance of Africa because culture is important,’’ Acey said.

Their impact was broad.

LaSimba Gray, longtime pastor at New Sardis Baptist Church, said he decided to change his first name from Leo to LaSimba while chatting with Naantaanbuu and her daughter, Kaia, in the barber shop.

“Adjua was cutting my hair one day. And Kaia said, ‘Leo, you’re not Greek. You’re an African man. Your name should be Simba.’ And that’s how my name change came about is sitting there in Adjua’s barbershop.”

She also influenced Rev. Bill Adkins, who named his church Greater Imani (Imani means faith in Swahili) called Naantaanbuu a “hidden hero.’’

“For African Americans (Kwanzaa) gives us a touch. A connection with our heritage. Our culture. And that has a great point of interest. But I think it’s for the ages. I think younger people, younger generations, two or three hundred years from now, will be still discovering Kwanzaa as well,’’ Adkins said.

Gray cited a couple reasons why Naantaanbuu has been overlooked. One, she was not a self-promoter, he said. Two, as a barber, she was more aligned with the working class.

Activist Paula Casey said it’s always been more difficult for women to gain recognition.

“People have the tendency to learn about any social or political movement only through a ‘Great Man’ theory of history, which often allows for other histories to be overlooked, especially those of women,’’ said Casey, who helped create Memphis’ “Equality Trailblazers’’ monument honoring suffragists and women who fought for voting rights, including civil rights icon Ida B. Wells and Maxine Smith, the late NAACP leader in Memphis.

“Women were really not encouraged. They were never given a lot of opportunities for leadership.”

Gray was instrumental in building the new Ida B. Wells statue at the corner of Fourth and Beale streets, and he said he’s now examining ways to honor Naantaanbuu, including possibly renaming Memphis’ Cherokee branch library for her.

“It needs to be renamed,’’ he said. “I think if we sic the community on that, we can get that done.”

Rachel Heimann Mercader
Contributing Author

Rachel Heimann Mercader is a freelance journalist in Memphis. She is a 2020 graduate of Rhodes College and a recent editorial assistant for the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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