I am a sportswriter. I've happily posted a "From My Seat" column for 16 years on the Flyer website (when I'm not occupying that space with thoughts via "Tiger Blue"). But I'm not only a sportswriter. So, in this space, I'm turning away from the games and athletes we love (or loathe), and sharing thoughts on a larger topic. Much larger.
April 4, 2018, is the most significant temporal marker for the city of Memphis since I moved here 27 years ago. A half-century is — by measures of a human lifetime — a significant sample size with which to analyze growth, development, progress. We find ourselves this week carefully analyzing, at least internally, the growth Memphis has realized since Martin Luther King was slain here on that dreadful day in April 1968.
My father was born in 1942 and grew up in a segregated Memphis. His black friends — some he grew to love — were primarily people employed by his parents, from housekeepers to auto mechanics. Dad crossed the state to attend the University of Tennessee in 1960, and I was born (in Knoxville) nine years later, precisely 11 months after Dr. King died in dad's hometown.
Fast-forward 22 years. I moved to Memphis in 1991, 11 days before the National Civil Rights Museum opened on the site where King fell. This was pure coincidence, of course. I didn't move here to be near the NCRM, and the museum's founders didn't wait for my arrival. But I've come to relish the completion of a Memphis family circle of sorts connected with the opening and rise of an institution dedicated to the promotion of worldwide diversity.
Memphis today, it must be noted, is not a colorblind city. Too many neighborhoods and schools remain one "color" or another; our public schools predominantly black and private schools predominantly white. But there are diamonds in the rough. My daughters have attended White Station High School, a public school more diverse than most of this country's elite liberal-arts colleges. (I attended Tufts, and my firstborn is a freshman at Wesleyan.) Each of my daughters has sat in a classroom where she is a distinct minority, as measured by skin color, nation of origin, or religion. The Spartan softball team's outfield in 2014 and 2015 could serve as a poster for the virtue of diversity in Memphis: a Caucasian in left, a Latina in center, an African American in right. (They won their district championship both years.)
My career has allowed me to interview the likes of James Lawson, Mike Cody, and Charlie Newman, men who quite literally walked with Martin Luther King, men who have continued his metaphorical march toward tolerance and brotherhood. More recently, for a leadership series I write for Inside Memphis Business, I've profiled Carolyn Hardy, Darrell Cobbins, Ruby Bright, and Tracy Hall. These are Memphis leaders, each improving the city with their voices and action. And we've reached a point, I believe, where they don't have to be classified as black leaders, for they are leading us all.
It took too long and required too much debate, but statues celebrating the long-dead Confederacy were taken down last December. A white mayor helped spearhead their removal, a man elected in what is now a majority-black city. Societal progress must be measured over lengthy stretches of time — a half-century will do — but symbols matter, and the efforts on one winter night in 2017 made for a big gulp of progress in Memphis.
Which brings me back to who I am, 27 years after arriving in Memphis, 50 years after Dr. King gave his life for the cause of human growth. I am a sportswriter, indeed. I am a managing editor. More importantly, I am a husband and father. I am a friend to people as far away as Guam, family to people as far away as Seattle. I am a Vermonter (from days gone by but not so distant). I am a white man now living in a world where that adjective isn't the tipping point it once was. And for that I'm grateful.
I am a Memphian.
Frank Murtaugh is managing editor for Memphis magazine, where he writes on a variety of topics.