The historical narrative of racism in the city of Memphis is a pictorial tale. Head west on one of our major arteries, on a street called Poplar, and a few blocks from downtown is Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, a park in honor to a man who served as the Grand Wizard of the KKK, and was one of the largest slave owners in the midsouth. Drive a little further west and you'll run into Confederate Park, a park that commemorates the efforts of the South to maintain her way of living, a living that was built on the backs of my forefathers. Turn left on Front street headed south and you'll run into the backside of the National Civil Rights Museum, what was once the old Lorraine Motel, the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was slain. The museum ends across the street at the boarding house where James Earl Ray assassinated the Civil Rights leader. Stand in Mason Temple and you can still feel the echoes of Dr. King's last sermon, a message of hope and inspiration as he beckoned black folk to get to the mountaintop. Look out at the great Pyramid that sits on the Mississippi River and you can remember large worship services in the 1990's where thousands from two churches—one black, one white—gathered to celebrate God together. Drive down Central headed east and look to your right and there is the Liberty Bowl, a place that became a rallying point for men during the Promise Keepers movement. It was at the Liberty Bowl where tens of thousands of white and black were challenged to be racially reconciled with one another.
More than mere architecture, these images tell the story of Memphis' bout with racism. Some landmarks narrate our struggle to live divided, others a clarion call to live united. Decades since King's death, and Promise Keeper's challenge, Memphis still stands divided. Our segregation is more of the silent, indifferent variety. If you're black in Memphis the statistics say you're receiving a less than desirable education and are more likely to live below the poverty line. Venture far enough down this path and you'll end up at 201 Poplar (our local jail), if not in an early grave. If you're white in Memphis, you have a better chance to make more money, live in better neighborhoods, and send your kids to great schools. Sure the "White's Only" signs have been taken down from public restrooms and water fountains, but in 2013 you might as well hang up "White's Mainly" signs over private schools and desirable neighborhoods.
Lest you think I'm bitter or at best disenchanted, I'm not. I love Memphis, and I feel deeply that we are at the best moment in the history of our city. Not only are the opportunities for minorities to thrive in this city unprecedented, but we are on the cusp of seeing King's vision for equality and community fulfilled. How else do you explain a multi-ethnic church in Memphis, Tennessee composed of several thousand people that's sixty-five percent white, and thirty-five percent African American? I am overwhelmed that God has allowed me to be a part of what he's doing through Fellowship Memphis.
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