Southern Voice: Martha Dickerson
There is just something about Memphis.
Three years ago, I road tripped to Memphis to spend Easter weekend with my then-boyfriend/now-husband. That Saturday, we sauntered down to the National Civil Rights Museum, as we had heard it was a must-see Memphis destination. We grabbed lunch at Central BBQ and wandered into the Lorraine Motel. The experience was poignant and powerful, above and beyond what we had anticipated. Each room is a stirring reminder of our nation’s complicated past and the bravery of men and women who risked all for change, a reminder that we as an American people must do and be better.
We were deeply moved before we even entered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s motel room at the Lorraine, but as we filed in and read the commemorative plaque, we realized that we hadn’t chosen to visit the museum on just any other day. We had chosen to visit on April 4, 2015 — 47 years to the day that King was assassinated in the very place where we stood. Peering out on the balcony, we were pressed by the weight of history.
Now that I am a Memphis local, my husband and I love the South Main neighborhood. We’ve spent countless nights over cocktails and small plates at Catherine & Mary’s, grabbed pre-show dinners with friends at South of Beale, enjoyed late night burgers at Earnestine & Hazel’s. But there is something about walking past the Lorraine Motel that always stops me in my tracks.
There is just something about Memphis. Sometimes, history feels close enough to touch here.
As a communications major at Furman University, I spent much of my days reading, listening to and analyzing great speeches. I had the immense privilege of savoring the words of John F. Kennedy, Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, Emmeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela and other towering figures of history, all for class credit. What a life.
I distinctly remember one coffee-fueled, late-night cram sesh for my Modern Rhetoric exam in the fall of my sophomore year. Sitting in a study room with one of my friends, we recited the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech back and forth to each other, mimicking the tone and tambour of his voice, trying to commit it to memory before the test. The speech recalls a brush with death that King had experienced years prior. After being stabbed at a public event, his doctors told him that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have died.
“If I had SNEEZED!” “If I had SNEEZED!”
While we were certainly not trying to be so, I would be lying if I said our youthful irreverence doesn’t shake me a little in hindsight. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to know many of his words by heart. Now that I’ve lived in Memphis, King’s final speech at Mason Temple has taken on new meaning for me, and I’m in awe of just how powerful his words were and are to this day.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze […] I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
Through the lens of history, his words are eerie and prophetic. He uttered them the night before that fateful shot rang out at the Lorraine Motel. They call into question whether our present reality resembles the promised land King envisioned. I hope we are closer today than we were then.
Growing up in Southern California, I somehow felt removed from this chapter of our nation’s march towards a more perfect union (California has its own complicated issues to wrestle with). One of the reasons I am most grateful to live in Memphis is how tangible this part of our history feels here. As we approach the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, I can feel the whole of Memphis pressed by the weight of history.
I recently read a report released by the National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis entitled “The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK,” analyzing how the African-American community and the poor have fared since Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis 50 years ago for the Sanitation Workers Strike in March of 1968. While it is worth reading in entirety, several of the key findings are striking to read.
The incidence of childhood poverty for all Shelby County children has risen in the new millennium. Childhood poverty rates for both African-Americans and whites are higher than in 1980.
The childhood poverty rate for African-American children is more than four times greater than that for whites.
Median income for African-Americans has stubbornly remained at approximately 50% of income for whites for the past half century.
The incarceration rate for African-Americans has increased 50% since 1980 […].
This can’t be the promised land that King envisioned.
I often worry that our social media-saturated culture has watered down King’s legacy. The man who is now lauded as one of the most beloved figures of history was deeply divisive in his time. Sometimes I wonder if before posting a graphic bearing the words “I have decided to stick with love,” you should be required to read “Beyond Vietnam” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Not to say that agreeing with King’s every word is a prerequisite to admiring his contributions to the world, but lest we forget the whole of his message, we risk missing the boat entirely.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was bold and compassionate and controversial and driven and unafraid and unapologetic in his pursuit of justice. If we ruminate on his life and his words, we are forced to look in the mirror and ask tough questions of ourselves.
In what ways have I allowed my privilege to shape my world view?
In what ways have I benefitted from systems and structures of inequality?
Do I allow myself to give into subtle prejudice and implicit bias?
What am I doing to advance the causes of justice and equality in the world around me?
I wonder these things daily, to a much greater degree than I did before moving here. Many of our friends we have made here feel the same. Memphis’s history and King’s legacy compel all of us to do so, especially those of us who have benefitted from the color of our skin.
There is just something about Memphis, and I am grateful to live here. I hope we continue the march towards that promised land King envisioned. I hope to, in some small way, be a part of that.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Martha Dickerson is a born and bred California girl living in Memphis with her Vols-loving husband.
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