Emily Yellin Continues Family Tradition of Documenting the Civil Rights Movement

Though people of every race now support the work of the SCLC, it wasn't always that way.  There were only a handful of whites who joined forces with civil rights leaders four decades ago.

One family, transplants to the Mid-South, not only joined the cause, but devoted their lives to it.  Now their daughter is doing the same.

Emily Yellin was just a child in 1968, the youngest of four children born to David and Carol Lynn Yellin, white New Yorkers who packed up their family and moved to Memphis during the civil rights movement.

"The way I remember April 4, 1968, is my brother Doug and I were sitting in the den of our house on Park Avenue and we were watching I Dream of Jeanie," she said. He was 11, I was 6.  And a special report came on, and my brother Doug yells to my dad and mom in the next room and said, 'Mom, Dad, Martin Luther King's been shot. Downtown!' And my parents, my dad, yelled back, 'Douglas, that's not funny.'"

At age 6, Emily says she remembers the phone ringing, and a woman crying on the other end of the line.

"I can remember standing in our dining room and I said, 'Daddy, who is Martin Luther King?' And he looks at me with this look and I can still remember it. Very sad. Very stern. And he says, all he said, 'He was a great man, Emily.'"

A great man, who inspired the Yellins to do great work. David, founder of the broadcast and film department at the University of Memphis, and Carol Lynn, a writer for Reader's Digest, embarked on an unprecedented assignment in the weeks following King's assassination.

As journalists, they began documenting the events in Memphis as they happened, gathering more than 150 interviews with political and religious leaders of the time.

"I'm sure I'm going to offend some people, but I have to say this: they interviewed everybody from Mayor Loeb on up. And that was the joke," she said.

The Yellins were also able to obtain and archive raw news footage from each of the television stations covering the events in Memphis.  Their work now makes up the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis.

"Most oral histories are done 30 years later and people are gray and they look back on what they did," Yellin said. "But they had people talking about what happened in those 65 days of the strike - two months later."

"I think the vision was, to have this be something 100 years from now, when people want to understand what happened in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated, they'll be able to do that because of my parent's work," she added.

It was David Yellin who convinced WMC's general manager to produce programming that gave black Memphians a voice - a first in this market in the 60's.  There was The 40-Percent Speak, Conversations in Black and White, and later Face to Face - hosted by Yellin himself.

"I think that perspective of being not from here, but of living here and being a part of the community, gave them the ability to see this in a broader sense and see it as a continuum of history," Yellin said.

Emily Yellin turned that history into her own life's work.  For years she covered the Southeast for the New York Times.

"When you write about the South for the New York Times, you basically write about two things: race and change," she said.

She now plans to continue the work her parents started in 1968 with her own interviews and recordings.  She's currently raising money for The Striking Voices Project, to conduct interviews with sanitation workers and their families about the 68 strike.

"Have the men themselves...the wives, the children - who were maybe teenagers at the time and are now in their fifties and sixties - talk about that time and talk about their experience and what it was like."
Conversations she believes we can all learn from.

"Change and evolution, growth maybe, in everybody, black and white. is not necessarily this big epic moment where it all converges.  It's the little things. It's the little things we each do in our lives," she said.

It's a lesson Emily says she learned during one of the darkest times in American history.

"There was this statement that said, 'The civil rights movement ended on April 4, 1968.' And I thought about that as an adult. And, for me, that's actually the day it began."