A few months ago, I had the pleasure of talking to several reporters about my favorite topic in the world…Memphis. It is a city with a complicated past, but a fascinating future. Memphis is a city of disruption—disruption of sectors, of social movements, and of culture. Memphis is also a phoenix. A fact I mentioned to my eager dinner mates who referred to the city as a musical Mecca, a city of historical rebuke, and hallowed ground for civil rights.
So, how is Memphis a phoenix? If you studied mythology because you were a nerd like me or if you read or watched any Harry Potter films (which also makes you a nerd!) then you know that a phoenix is a bird that sets itself on fire to regenerate. When you look at Memphis, you see that cycle too. Memphis has constantly risen from its own ashes, never losing hope along the way.
Following the Yellow Fever epidemic in the 1870s, the city lost over 50% of its population and ultimately its charter, but this setback could not stop Memphis. With the establishment of a revolutionary sanitation system, Memphis fought back the source of the disease and transformed the way the world handled its waste. However, little did the city know that these newly created sanitation jobs would catalyze a more insidious tragedy a few short decades later with the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. In 1968 these sanitation workers were crushed to death while seeking shelter from the rain.
In a flash, Memphis’ and the south’s history of socioeconomic imbalance and systematic racism towards the African American community catapulted the city to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King came to help organize a strike for Memphis sanitation workers. On April 4th, 1968 a shot rang out at 6:01 pm piercing the Civil Rights leader through the throat. A photographer, Joseph Louw, would shoot an iconic photograph of three men pointing upwards, trying to ascertain where the shot came from while the life seeped from the King on the ground. He would not make it to the Promised Land with us.
However, there was a fifth subject in the photo- Memphis.
In mythology, the Phoenix doesn’t always combust to start itself anew. Sometimes it rises from its own decay. Among the older generations in Memphis, there’s a sentiment that Memphis froze in place after they shot King, but nothing stops time.
In the following decades, Memphis found itself with problems faced by metros across the nation. From white flight and annexation, to the crack epidemic and the subsequent War on Drugs that hollowed out the neighborhoods I now cherish and consider home. Memphis was decaying. Our city became more impoverished, less safe, and seemingly less relevant every day. But while Memphis appeared to be heading towards its worst, life was beginning to stir in its ashes.
Since the assassination, we’ve made progress. A recent study published by the National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis found that since the 1960’s, black families have attained more high school diplomas and more post-secondary degrees. Additionally, these citizens have accessed more white-collar jobs. However, progress has been slow and black families have not caught up to their white counterparts in median income levels. Memphis, unfortunately, recently recaptured the title of the most impoverished metro in the nation. Child poverty rates have climbed to the same levels as the 1980’s and affect black children the hardest.
In this way Memphis is not unique; our issues simply mirror the ills of society. But given our history, isn’t Memphis uniquely positioned to show the rest of the country how to fix these issues? Isn’t that our duty as a city- to model Dr. King’s radical legacy of racial and socio-economic justice? So, as we ask ourselves the question, “Where do we go from here?” I can see no other way except forward.
As Dr. King said, “Something is happening in Memphis. Something is happening in the world.” Every day at my job, I have the privilege of witnessing the people on the ground doing the hard work in education, in neighborhood connectivity, and in arts and culture. In the next 5-10 years, the landscape of the city will shift drastically. The riverfront will change and allow more people to have access to it, the future Greenprint will connect the entire county through bikeways and trails and community development corporations like The Works in South Memphis are working tirelessly to help lower income families afford homes and claim their part of the American Dream. In the arts, organizations like the Collective and the Center for Southern Literary Arts both beautify the city through art and make space for marginalized voices. In education, I get to witness the sharpest minds work to make our system more equitable and advocate for both parents and students.
The city is witnessing an undeniable shift. Memphis’ indomitable spirit has returned. The conversations feel more thoughtful and intentional. People ask about the racial implications of new policies and the effects on our lower-income communities. We understand as citizens that another fifty years cannot pass us by without us making substantial and lasting changes in our communities.
Dr. King posed this question, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” When presented with these options, Memphis should always choose community.
Memphis is not perfect. I fell in love with neither the city’s perfections nor its imperfections; I fell in love with Memphis’ people. Untiring. Unshakeable. Unrivaled. I know whatever challenges we face this city will prevail and will rise to confront any difficulties ahead. There is still much work to be done.