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Keeping Hope Alive

Dr. King's dream was echoed in the media-reform conference.

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What may come to be regarded as a watershed event in the history of Memphis was this past weekend's National Conference for Media Reform at the Cook Convention Center, teeming with celebrities and a mass migration here of what, a generation ago, would have been called the counterculture.

This generation's version is a culture-in-waiting, however. And the national Democrats' tentative electoral successes of last November, coupled with the coming-of-age of new-media technology, gave the decidedly left-of-center conference an aura of genuine revolution.

Under those circumstances, how could you not have Jesse Jackson?

Those who had never experienced him in the flesh were bowled over by Jackson, who had the crowd chanting "Keep hope alive" -- a mantra he made famous and a staple of his Rainbow/PUSH coalition.

"Wow! I'm tempted to convert," said Marty Aussenberg, the Flyer's online "Gadfly" columnist who is very proudly both a secularist and a Jew. In actual fact, Jackson's been-there, done-that oratory was probably only a C+ by his standards -- though a B+ or maybe even an A- by anybody else's.

There were unintentional ironies in the speech, for one thing. Slamming the mainstream media (MSM in conference shorthand) for its stereotypings, the Reverend Jackson noted that he had been asked repeatedly of late to comment on the racist ravings of Seinfeld graduate Michael Richards and protested, "Why pigeonhole me just to respond to a broken-down comedian and not talk about war and peace?"

But Jackson took time out to parrot the MSM line that former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr.'s defeat in last year's U.S. Senate race was due to the "racist" effect of the "Harold, Call Me" TV ad, one that "[took] away his Senate seat which he would have won."

That ignored the facts that Ford had been a supporter of the Iraq war early and often, that the Beltway establishment's imputations of racism to the ad had been rebutted by Ford himself, and that at least a marginal factor in his defeat was the congressman's unrelentingly conservative rhetoric and voting record.

Another irony came when Jackson segued into the thesis that King's immortal "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963 had actually been a litany of "broken promises," a scolding of the society at large for its failure to deliver on the American Dream.

Fade to the final speech of the conference, a barn-burner on Sunday morning by one Van Jones, a West Tennessee-born activist and media maven who now lives in the Bay Area. There were more than a few in attendance who wondered why Jones (or anybody, for that matter) would have been consigned to go after the predictably electric Jane Fonda.

Jones answered all of those questions with a rousing call to arms on behalf of a reformed media and a regenerated democracy and with the common-sense observation that Dr. King's famously inspirational March on Washington address of 1963 had not been called "I Have a Complaint."

The main speaker Saturday night, last on the bill before Fonda's address of Sunday morning, had been the actor Geena Davis, who touted See Jane, the organization she had founded to promote gender equality in the entertainment industry.

Though the much-maligned national MSM tended to ignore the proceedings here, thousands of cybernetic onlookers joined the thousands of in-person attendees via streaming audio and video. So Jane got seen, as did Geena. And Jesse, and Senator Bernie Sanders, and Phil Donahue. And the great Helen Thomas, and Bill Moyers, and the 9th District's new congressman, Steve Cohen.

And hundreds of others who proclaimed dreams of their own -- for gender and racial equality, for economic justice, for an abundance of other democratic goals, and for a people's media free and empowered enough to pursue and achieve them. There was even an audience member who made a persuasive case that conservatives could buy into the kind of social and media reforms imagined here.

That all of this happened in Memphis, as a result not of some expensive and vaguely cabalistic undertaking but of the organizers' own free will, is yet another irony.

That the conference happened on the weekend that we Memphians are annually reminded of the need -- and opportunity -- to redeem the hopes of the great man slain here in 1968 is the ultimate irony.

Keep hope alive, indeed.

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