A Coda for Late Memphis Journalist Becomes New Work-in-Progress
In L. Alex Wilson was one of the first editors of the Memphis Tri-State Defender newspaper, writing about civil rights. His grandson, a classical flute player, now channels his memory through music.
This story is a collaboration between WKNO-FM and the New Tri-State Defender. You can read a version of this story on the New Tri-State Defender as part of their special 70th anniversary edition.
Seventy years ago this week, Memphis’ Black community got a new media voice. A small newspaper, the Tri-State Defender, would offer inside perspectives during the Civil Rights Movement. One of its first editors, L. Alex Wilson, both told the story of that cause and became a martyr to it. Today, Wilson’s grandson is rediscovering his family’s legacy.
Here in the middle of historic Elmwood Cemetery, music breaks the silence of the stones.
Adam Sadberry, a flute player with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, plays to a long-departed audience.
“This is the only place that I've ever gotten to be with my grandfather,” Sadberry said. “So it feels pretty visceral.”
Wilson came to Memphis in 1955, sent by the nation’s leading Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, to run its fledgling Southern chapter, the Tri-State Defender.
He quickly became a leading documenter of the fight to end racial segregation, said Hank Klibanoff, co-author of the book “The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.”
“Well, beyond doubt, L. Alex Wilson was one of the absolute most aggressive, courageous, and effective journalists who covered civil rights,” he said.
In 1957, Wilson went to Little Rock to cover the desegregation of Central High School. A white mob turned on him and other Black reporters. His colleague James Hicks recalled the scene for PBS’s documentary “Eyes on the Prize” in 1987.
“Somebody had a brick in his hand and instead of throwing the brick because he was too close, he hit Alex Wilson up the side his head with this brick,” Hicks said. “Of course, Wilson was more than 6 feet tall, ex-Marine, he went down like a tree.”
Some believe media coverage of Wilson’s beating helped persuade President Eisenhower to intervene in Little Rock. But Wilson’s family said the injury led to chronic headaches. Then, Parkinson’s disease.
He died about three years later at the age of 51.
Sadberry moved to Memphis in 2019 to play for the symphony. He’d heard about the family connection, but reading his grandfather’s writings, including his column about the attack, changed the way Sadberry sees his role as a musician.
“My grandfather's legacy has affected me in the sense that I no longer play the flute to play the flute,” he said. “I play it with a mission to tell stories and share information and to bring relevance to my work.”
In the orchestra, Sadberry’s job is to follow the score and blend in like he did during his childhood growing up in a mostly white small town north of Houston. His grandfather’s legacy has given him a new perspective.
“I'd spent a lot of my life assimilating instead of trying to come into my full self as Adam Sadberry the black flutist,” he said.
Now, playing takes on a deeper meaning.
“I want to be able to contribute to the world in a way that is symbolic of what was important to my grandfather and also what’s important to me in the context of what I am able to achieve through music,” he said.
Recently Sadberry has been studying Black composers and their works such as William Grant Still. One of Still’s pieces, “Mother and Child” will be part of a multimedia program honoring Sadberry’s grandfather on Jan. 15 at Crosstown Theater. Wilson’s historic writings from the Tri-State Defender will serve as a backdrop to historic music.
It’s also a tribute to their commitment to promoting racial equity: Wilson with his pen and Sadberry with his flute.