Full Circle?



I wasn't alive when Martin Luther King was killed.

My senior editors recall the tanks rumbling down Poplar Avenue. Other writers have memories of a city paralyzed with fear after King's assassination, of marches and speeches, of striking sanitation workers and putrid piles of garbage, of churches and homes divided.

I do not.

I'll admit I questioned my ability to shape an issue centered around events I'm too young to have lived through.

But I have been fortunate enough, here in the city forever haunted by the assassination of an American icon, to sit knee-to-knee with the very civil rights pioneers who spent time with King, who fought for their basic human rights, who risked their lives and their careers and everything they'd worked for to stand up for what was just. Lucky enough to view those terrible days through their eyes. It's access that most Memphians who were here in 1968 didn't have. Couldn't have. My fears about this issue abated with every passing day, every interview, every meeting.

It's one thing to read about the bullet that ripped though King's body on the balcony of the Lorraine. It's quite another thing to hear Rev. Billy Kyles describe it: the ear-splitting blast of the rifle, King's body crumpling, one leg dangling through the balcony railing, warm, sticky blood pooling on unforgiving concrete.

It's one thing to read about segregation. It's quite another to hear Larry Conley, former Memphis editor, describe going to the Mid-South Fair on "Negro Day."

It's one thing to see grainy photos of "colored" water fountains and of schoolchildren with black faces crammed into the backs of buses. It's quite another to hear NAACP Executive Director Johnnie Turner's voice tighten as she describes the white girl who called her nigger and who laughed as Turner relinquished her seat to the child who knew no better. Who certainly was no better.

It's been hard to hear. It's been uncomfortable and awkward and insightful and painful to sit in front of people who suffered such horrific indignities at the hands of the white community. I admit I felt burning shame more times than I can recall over the last few months. But I am also keenly aware of, and thankful for, the opportunity. No, I wasn't alive in 1968, but I can take the stories, the history brought to life on these pages, and make use of the lessons in the future.

But the future is now, and it seems as ugly and violent and senseless today as it was 40 years ago.

School shootings. Gangs of shotgun-wielding robbers roaming the streets. Police officers murdered in their own homes. Stabbings and carjackings and gang wars. The Lester Street Massacre.

What are we doing to each other? And how far are we from the dream that King died for just a few hundred yards from where I'm sitting?

I watch, dejected but without judgment, as friends and acquaintances flee Memphis. They've given up. Lost hope. Moved on.

As for me and my family, we're staying. If I've learned anything from working on this issue, it's that nothing worth fighting for comes easy. Where would we be if the people in the following pages gave up when things got tough?

Yes, it's scary to be a Memphian right now. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit my pulse quickens when I venture out after nightfall. I don't want to leave, but I don't want to live like this any longer. I won't. I have to believe that we can take our city back. Surely, I'm not the only one. Martin Luther King made it to the mountaintop. We owe it to him to at least keep climbing.

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