For the anniversary of the 1968 strike of sanitation workers that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis, Tennessee, civic leaders organized #MLK50, a series of events meant to commemorate the city’s legacy of civil rights activism and explore the nation’s progress on issues of racial and economic equity. Memphis writer Zandria F. Robinson tries to reconcile the pomp and circumstance of the festivities with the inequality that lingers, stagnant and unchanged over the past fifty years in a personal essay for Scalawag.
Being 16 when King was killed, Mama spent her whole life knowing. I don’t know how many years of extra mourning she was born with. Nor do I know which cataclysmic rupture in the Memphis history that happened to her before she was born—the lynchings of Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and William Stewart? The burning of Ida B. Wells’s newspaper offices?—was the source of that extra mourning. Growing up, Mama’s stories of her every day and emotional life after that Thursday, April 4, 1968, made me know that she was herself a museum, archiving all the things of her life and rotating what was on view. She was the docent of her life and of Black southern women’s lives and Black Memphis life, guiding us through her exhibits. Mama was an activist for being a museum and for just thinking she deserved freedom. She taught us the Black folk cogito: I think therefore I am free…
What is the mood like in Memphis 50 years after the assassination of King? What’s it like to be the poorest large Black city in the country and the city that killed a man leading a campaign advocating for poor people at the same time? What about that bankruptcy and environmental racism and foreclosure and infant mortality? How you—is it “y’all?—feel about all of this police surveillance? Where is the best barbecue/soul food? You say your little cousin was shot in the back by police before social media? Is the dream continuing here, where his blood was spilled? Is this ground zero for the civil rights movement? Is the dream now a nightmare? How can we keep King’s dreams alive? Do you know a sanitation worker? About this mountaintop: Are we there yet? Will we ever get there? Was his blood the magic?
Our mood is that low, salty, stank ass simmer of weariness of the same, that stale mid-summer mustiness, that heaviness of a viscous mourning we haven’t been able to put down because King and our cousins and friends are murdered and resurrected to be murdered again. We are tired of unfulfilled dreams, dreams deferred, cranes in the sky, and raisins in the sun.