At a University of Memphis forum last week commemorating the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, a young man in the audience asked the panelists if Memphis was forever stuck in 1968.
The question was bundled with several others and didn't get answered very well, which was too bad because it was a good question, maybe the best of the day.
The 40th anniversary, of course, follows the 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th, and 35th King anniversaries along with — since 1986 — the annual federal Martin Luther King holiday (January 21st this year), the local ceremonies marking King's birthday on January 15th, the NBA's sixth annual civil rights game, and the second annual Major League Baseball civil rights game — all within the space of 80 days. In the fall, the National Civil Rights Museum hosts the annual NAACP Freedom Awards.
How many times can a city review a man's life and rededicate itself to his ideals before inviting apathy, hucksterism, and self-indulgence instead of activism? Memphis has become America's racial guilt trip and America's civil rights city. Less would be more. Share the guilt. Atlanta, Detroit, and New York don't have racial histories?
Parachuting into Memphis last week were Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, NBC news anchor Brian Williams, New York Times columnist David Brooks, broadcaster and author Tavis Smiley, former Memphis Invaders, Bishop Charles E. Blake, and several others who knew King, marched with King, wrote books about King, or had something to say about King and 1968. It was, in its own way, a lineup to rival the roster of performers at the Beale Street Music Festival or the throng of sports reporters, ex-jocks, and coaches at the Final Four.
At a personal level, it's impossible to say how many lives are positively influenced and changed by the Martin Luther King Jr. revivals. The big picture doesn't look good. For all the talk of transformations and rededications, Memphis still moves backward.
The basic measurement of citizenship — voting in Memphis municipal elections — has declined dramatically since 1968, with the exception of the 65 percent turnout in the landmark 1991 election when Willie Herenton defeated Dick Hackett. From 1971 to 1983, voter turnout ranged from 50 percent to 57 percent. From 1995 to 2007, it ranged from 17 percent to 38 percent. The single-digit turnout in local special elections, virtually unheard of until 1995, has become commonplace, with 12 of them since 2005.
Nine out of 10 black students in city schools attend all-black schools, just as they did in 1968, four years before massive court-ordered busing.
The Memphis metropolitan area has the highest violent-crime rate in the country: 1,263 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Memphis has the highest infant-mortality rate in the country: 14 deaths per 1,000 live births. Memphis is in the top 10 for bankruptcy, poverty, and sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. The population is growing slightly due to annexation, but greater Memphis has fallen behind greater Nashville.
The event where the young man asked the "stuck-in-1968" question was, by turns, informative, boring, and weird. There is a wallop to hearing someone recollect something in person that you don't get from the printed page or a video documentary. Former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran told about being Metro editor in 1968 and sending reporter Tom Fox to the hospital where King was taken. Fox conveniently had a "heart attack" that gave him an extra 15 minutes near King and a scoop. Although I used to work with Fox, I had never heard the story.
There was power and fire, too, in the words of former Memphis Invader Charles Cabbage, telling tales "for the 1,000th time," former Memphis policeman Ed Redditt, and labor leader Jessie Epps. The consensus of the panel, McEachran excepted, seemed to be that James Earl Ray, a convict from East St. Louis, didn't do it. Cabbage said the United States government should be indicted for the murder of King. Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, gave plaques to Cabbage and the other former Invaders and lauded them as "heroes."
As University of Memphis student body president Gionni Carr noted, the crowd was small, probably under 50, and included very few students. Basketball fever? Apathy? Who knows? You certainly couldn't blame the student newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, which was a model of perspective. Above the front-page fold was a story on radical activist and King anniversary speaker Angela Davis. Below the fold was an exclusive, hard-edged story by reporters Casey Hilder and Jessamyn Bradley about the University of Memphis having the lowest graduation rate of any college in the Final Four and in the state of Tennessee.
"We learned some interesting stuff as we looked into Angela Davis, a lot of things we didn't know," said managing editor Travis Griggs. "I think it's good to re-address this and get people thinking about these issues, regardless of how you feel about her."
Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey, an activist in his college days 40 years ago, participated in a panel with "Green for All" founder Van Jones and others.
"The anniversary is still a unique opportunity for the city to converse with the world on the issue of human rights," Bailey said. "The events can be meaningful if they provide the impetus to be creative and dedicated in tackling the issues of poverty, violence, alienation, and indifference on the part of the establishment to the raw and aching concerns of the inner city."
Bailey said there is a danger that resolve will fade when the celebrations end. "I don't want to sound the cynic," he said, "but the trench work required is done away from the glare of the media."
One of the most important choices Memphis will make this year is the new superintendent of Memphis City Schools and its 115,000 students. A panel of the National Action Network 2008 national convention here last week included several big-city mayors and superintendents, including the dynamic team of Washington, D.C.: Mayor Adrian Fenty and schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, each 38 years old.
"Education is the civil rights issue," said Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City school system. "We've got to get it right in education or all these other issues will not be straightened out."
About 40 people attended the panel. Memphians stayed away in droves.