The Memphis Grizzlies do a phenomenal job with their annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration. In what I consider the crown jewel of the Grizzlies' operations side’s achievements, the team pulls out all the stops to recognize and celebrate the legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left behind in this country for all who suffered racial and economic injustices. The team traditionally honors former athletes who have been examples of Dr. King’s legacy, and hosts a captivating symposium that allows the honorees to share stories of adversity and inspiration.
A recent Grizzlies MLK Day uniform
The celebration, of course, also surrounds an actual NBA game. The Grizzlies were the first organization in the NBA to place an intentional emphasis on the day, which is fitting, considering Memphis’ history as a key city during the civil rights movement and Dr. King's tragic assassination here in 1968.
The NBA has since hitched their wagon to the Grizzlies' innovation and made MLK Day a major event league-wide. This also resulted in the Grizzlies being bumped from the prime-time nationally televised game to the earlier afternoon game (and even being moved to the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day in 2017). The NBA eventually made things right by returning the Grizzlies to the Monday game last season. In 2017 and 2018 the team wore uniforms inspired by Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
The Grizzlies and the NBA have done an excellent job of capturing the essence of Dr. King on a surface level, but there is so much more that needs to be done, especially in the city where Dr. King took his final breath. I was born and raised in Memphis and I love this city with everything I have. I love its soul, its attitude, its hospitality, its culture. There’s isn’t much about this city that I won’t defend to its core — except for the fact that now, 50-plus years after Dr. King’s assassination, Memphis still has a long way to go as far as achieving the actual essence of his dream.
The difference between schools in the inner city and the suburbs is appalling. As someone who has a background in working hands-on with the city’s youth, and alongside its school system’s employees, I can tell you that a visit inside of some of the inner-city schools can bring you to tears. There are no rules or laws that separate us but there is a lot of “that’s just how it is.”
The racism is veiled, but still alive and well. There are parts of town that people avoid, either because of perceived danger or just plain ignorance. From another viewpoint, there are also parts of town that people stay away from to avoid unfair treatment, stares, and racial profiling.
But the show must go on. The games and the festivities around them must still be played. There’s a cliché that gets a lot of notoriety here in Memphis: Namely, that the Grizzlies bring the city together. This is a cliché to which I will never subscribe. Sports don’t bring a city together. They are a temporary escape from reality — a coping mechanism. If a person has disdain or prejudice towards someone of another race or social class, it doesn’t magically disappear when you both see the upside in Jaren Jackson Jr.
Maybe the Grizzlies cause you to cheer together against a common enemy or to join together in the joys of victory, but all of that can quickly fade away when you see the guy that you just gave a high-five to pull his wife closer as she clutches her purse in the parking lot while passing you. I’ve been a part of this scenario enough to know that it’s a real thing. I’ve lived in this city long enough to know that it needs work to achieve all that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned. Has there been progress? Yes, but there is little to actually celebrate about.