Previously published as Memphis Magazine’s City Journal column:
Few phrases are as overused today as “defining event,” but it’s never as accurate as when many in my Boomer generation look back at the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He looms as an influence over our lives as much as our own families. His words and his courage inspired our values and our beliefs. His death endowed our lives with a strange blend of high ideals and cynicism that remains today.
Recalling those purpose-driven times, we are like World War II veterans whose retelling of their experiences places them emotionally back in that exact moment in time. There are the memories – the incredulity of sanitation workers crushed to death among the garbage of their trucks, standing in front of a dorm at Memphis State University after being told that the campus was shutting down and watching smoke climb into the sky over Orange Mound, there were the tanks lumbering down Poplar Avenue making my new Argentine aunt homesick for her country, and there was the overpowering feeling of civic failure.
Prophet In His Own Land
Most of all, there was the aching sense of loss. It wasn’t just his gift of oratory. It was his gift of prophecy. It was dramatically on display the night before his death, but the prediction that continues to resonate in Memphis day was this: the quest for equal justice would give way to the quest for economic justice.
Dr. King was not the only person making predictions in Memphis in 1968. The president of Memphis Chamber of Commerce had one of his own: “If the Negro ministers would tend to their ministering instead of trying to stir things up, we wouldn’t have had this trouble. Nothing can be done about this situation. It’s going to take 40 years before we can make any real progress. You can’t take these Negro people and make the kind of citizens out of them you’d like.”
It was a few days before Dr. King was murdered, so none of us could imagine that those 40 years would come without him. While there are proud milestones of progress, the promise of dramatic economic progress for African-Americans remains elusive today.
Good And Bad News
The good news is that there is now a wider and deeper black middle and upper middle class. The bad news is that the median white family income is almost twice the median black family income and the gap seems as much a part of the Memphis landscape as the Mississippi River.
These days, 40 years after Dr. King led the fight for average workers to get paid more, the economic indicators for African-Americans continue to be troubling, reflecting the Memphis economy’s overreliance on low-wage, low-skill jobs.
That’s something that probably would not have surprised Dr. King. What would have surprised him is that within months, Memphis will become the first metro area with more than a million people to be majority African-American. There are plenty of U.S. cities that are majority African-American within their city limits, but there is no other that is majority minority within its entire MSA.
Getting A Grip
If Memphis officialdom could not come to grips with the notion that the least among us – sanitation workers with no pensions or life insurance – could change Memphis forever. Today, we still haven’t come to grips with the fact about being majority African-American.
At a recent Leadership Memphis meeting, a man who embodies the new approaches being taken by young African-Americans said: “We just have to be brutally honest. There are people here and there are people around the country who say being majority African-American means that we cannot succeed. It’s like we have no choice. But we do.”
It begins by acknowledging in every economic development brochure, it begins by targeting African-American heritage tourism, and it begins by talking honestly to each other. In a world where diversity is the rule, not the exception, how do we parlay our diversity into a competitive advantage? In a world where knowledge-based jobs are the most coveted, how do we get our share?
#1 In Wrong Categories
Along the way, the problems cited by Dr. King remain just as real as they were in 1968. In a comparison of 35 metro areas that included Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Louisville, Memphis ranked #1 in a several categories: families headed by single parents, families in poverty, smallest percentage of adults with advanced degrees, smallest percentage of firms (with employees) owned by African-Americans, smallest percentage of firms owned by women, births to teen parents, and children living in poverty.
If we learned anything from Dr. King, it should be that we should reject language that scapegoats our neighbors, even if it is in a weekly feature in our daily newspaper tallying the number of babies born to single mothers. Rather, as Dr. King urged, it is in facing these issues squarely and with humanity that Memphis has its best chance to solve them.
Perhaps, Memphis even fulfills the words from the night before his death: “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead…we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” That should be enough to inspire us to try.