Memphis’ Past Has No Connection With Its Future

What comes after the legend?



Someone asked me if I would help a writer friend who lives on the West Coast. He wants to do a television series and set it in Memphis. The original thought was to do it in New Orleans, but that’s been overworked. A fresh show needs a fresh town. A dinosaur journalist might have a few ideas, or so my friend thought.

Maybe, maybe not, but I think I at least know what they want. The city becomes a character in the show or book, as Nashville is to Nashville and Baltimore is to The Wire and New Orleans is to True Detective and Los Angeles is to Raymond Chandler and Portland is to Portlandia. Part grit and part glam. It’s entertainment. Don’t take it too seriously. No term papers or lectures, thank you.

So this is what I told them.

Memphis would be a good choice. It has a good story. It’s an important American story. It’s a story for our time. But it’s not the story everyone knows, or thinks they know, which is the caricature that was trotted out in May when “The Royals” came to Memphis for a wedding and visited The Rendezvous and Graceland before hunkering down at the Memphis Hunt and Polo Club to dance to a blues band.

In long form, Memphis has been in some very good books, movies, musicals, documentaries, museums, and news stories about Elvis, Sun Studio, Beale Street, Martin Luther King Jr., 1968, Stax, The Peabody, and Federal Express.

That’s our history, but not our story. Our story is “What Next?” What comes after the legend?

What happens when the statute of limitations runs out on “first black” as a modifier? As in Mayor A C Wharton Jr., one of the first black students at Ole Miss law school, its first black instructor, the first black Shelby County mayor, and elected successor to Willie Herenton, the first black Memphis mayor. Wharton is 70 years old. He finished law school in 1971.

Fred Smith will be 70 in August. He has said he plans to retire some time in this decade. FedEx is reducing its employment in Memphis. How do you replace his biography, his business vision, his civic leadership? As James Michener wrote, where do we find such men?

We live in the shadow of Nashville’s blazing light. We are Tennessee’s black city, Tennessee’s civil rights city, a blue dot in a red state, and Tennessee’s second largest metro. We are the city some people in other parts of Shelby County and Tennessee would just as soon cut out from the rest of the state or cede to someone else.

Elvis died in 1977. His fan base is on Medicare. Graceland is, as the billboards say, 10 minutes from downtown. So how big a bet do you want to make on Whitehaven? And how much faith do you have in the city to run Beale Street?

We believe, or we hope anyway, that the rich will save us. We are a city where billionaires anonymously influence public policy, firm in the belief that politicians would waste it, as well they might.

We like to say that sports, especially basketball, brings us together. Coaches and professional athletes who make $10 million a year and might not be around next season are idolized. A home-grown police director who makes $125,000 and a nice pension is demonized.

We court twentysomethings and the “creatives” and put hundreds of them to work in our schools, ready or not. We have pretty much abandoned the idea that public schools in Memphis should be for everyone in favor of the idea that they are laboratories for reform for those who can’t get out. School desegregation is history. School resegregation is the story.

The trick in Memphis is to remember 1968 without getting stuck in it. We honor “legends” and “black history” at the National Civil Rights Museum and ballgames and marches. Union members bring out the “I Am a Man” signs at city budget time when the issue is curbing benefits and pensions those sanitation workers could not have dreamed of in 1968. And the charge of racism, always racism, is never far away.

So set the scene for that television show with shots of the Peabody ducks, neon signs, river sunsets, growl towels, and guitars. But don’t stop there. Tension makes good stories, and Memphis has plenty of that.

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