17 May 2012
- Written by Tony Jones
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Mr. Joseph Crittenden Sr. died on Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at the age of 93.
In his lifetime, he became a beloved husband, a father to 11, grandfather to 31 and great grandfather to 94. Friends and acquaintances admired and respected him.
Mr. Crittenden worked as a cotton picker, served in the armed forces, made a living as a master tractor mechanic (a much sought after skill in the agricultural south), and was the owner of a series of combination gas stations, auto shops and convenience stores.
His is not a name readily known to the media and historians of the civil rights era, but that victory for human rights could not have occurred without men and women such as Crittenden , the very embodiment of the foot soldier.
Never a sanitation department employee, nor a member of their union, Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Mr. Crittenden worked tirelessly for their cause. He was, according to numerous people, the organizer/friend/protector who led them out of the gate to begin the strike.
Justifiably proud of his role, but never boastful or arrogant, Mr. Crittenden fought for justice as long as his strength would allow. Even at the age of 89, he was down in the heat of Tunica County, Mississippi helping to organize a public protest, knocking on doors and urging people to support Louise Linzy, who eventually became the first African-American female elected judge in the county's history.
The Rev. Dr. Dwight Montgomery, head of the Memphis Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, calls Mr. Crittenden the greatest civil rights servant of all time.
"Look at the photos of the era, he was right there beside the men who were out front, placing his own life on the line each and every time," said Montgomery. "And he did not flinch. It certainly showed him to be a man of true courage."
The photos Montgomery refers to were taken by famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers Sr., one of Crittenden's closest friends. Andrew Withers recalls his father telling him that Mr. Crittenden was his driver during the infamous Emmett Till trial.
"They were followed from Mississippi by the Klan, but Joe ducked into a farm and they hid out until the Klan members got tired of looking for them and left," said Andrew Withers.
Mr. Crittenden's close associates also included 24-7 community activists the Rev. Ezekial Bell and business owner Johnnie Williams, who was a playmate of Emmett Till. Bell, Williams and Crittenden convinced Montgomery to serve as president of the newly reformed SCLC Memphis Chapter in 2004.
"He was really concerned about civil rights," said Montgomery. "Whether it was about police brutality or black-on-black crime, he would call me and be truly concerned about the issue and the person. He was my mentor and he was my friend. In reforming the SCLC he would attend every march, and like he did in the 60s, he was right there in front."
"But that's Daddy," laughed Mr. Crittenden's granddaughter, Tina Crittenden, reacting to one of the Joe Crittenden stories being told by her mother, Gladys Crittenden Jones, with Crittenden's widow, Annette Crittenden, joining in.
"When we were young he used to tell us he was going to work, but he was out organizing," said Gladys Crittenden Jones. "His whole thing the whole time was keeping us safe. He didn't want us to worry."
Tina Crittenden recalls her first memory of her grandfather's civic worth.
"Daddy took us up to the motel to see where it (Dr. King's assassination) happened. There were a lot of people there, staring, crying and praying, but I remember how they parted when Daddy brought us through. It was like everybody knew him," she said.
Mr. Crittenden was nobody to play with when it came to "his people," and that doubled when it came to his family.
"I was 15," Tina Crittenden recalls, "and called Daddy and asked him could I come work at the store to make some money to go to a basketball camp. This guy came in and tried to rob us. I had the gun that he kept by the register. Daddy kept yelling 'Shoot him Tee!' But I was too nervous, I couldn't do it.
"And that's when I knew the hand of God was on Daddy for real," she said. "He could have been killed so many times. The robber was nervous too. He shot at him four, five or six times but didn't hit him once. That had to be God or he was the worst shot in history. Daddy pulled out this gun he had behind the register and chased him all the way down the street shooting in the air."
Annette Crittenden remembered the incident in the gas station that her husband at Auction and Third.
"He always worked hard, then came home and went out organizing," she said, "and I was there with him many of the times."
In 1966, Mr. Crittenden was with James Meredith, the first African-American admitted to the then-segregated University of Mississippi, when Meredith was shot during the "March Against Fear" – a push to get African Americans to register to vote after the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"He was walking right beside him (Meredith) on the march when Joe saw the barrel of a gun in the bushes," said Annette Crittenden. "If he hadn't pushed him, Mr. Meredith would have been killed by the shot."
Mr. Crittenden "never let us forget our place," said Tina Crittenden.
"Not lecturing, but by being. For years after Dr. King was assassinated, he still felt it in his heart. He would hear a speech or something about it on the radio or on television and it would trigger something in him," she said.
"Many times, my friends and I would be in the backyard playing basketball and he would play the tapes of speeches while we were playing and I would come in and he would be in tears like it had just happened."
Crittenden and her mother, Gladys Crittenden Jones, said Mr. Crittenden often relayed stories from his childhood.
"You had to say 'yes sir' and 'yes ma'am' to anyone white, even the kids he was playing with when the grownups were watching, and it still bothered him. He said his children would never grow up like that."
Annette Crittenden said her husband did what he did during the civil rights era without receiving any compensation.
"He was just a man dedicated to his family and his people. He was always pushing...and he never, ever stopped pushing for what was right."