America Did This: An Open Letter to Memphis, Tenn.

Children from Promise Academy Spring Hill hold “I Am a Man” signs, in reference to the Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, as they participate in an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination April 4, 2018, in Memphis. King was killed on April 4, 1968, while supporting the strike.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

You are beautiful.

The way you sparkle in the reflection of the mighty Mississippi River. The way the trumpets bellow from the bowels of Beale Street. The way you don’t give a damn about consonants when you talk. The way you bathe yourself in blues riffs, barbecue smoke ... and pain.


A lot of pain.

I can feel it. It is a citywide, ankle-deep puddle of tears that never evaporates. It is a pall that has never lifted. But, my dear Memphis, it is time to show the world how beautiful you are underneath your 50-year-old death mask.

It is not your fault.

On April 4, 1968, a bullet entered the right cheek of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., killing him, and it was you who bore the shame. It was you who hung your head and imagined yourself tainted with the unthinkable legacy. But no one ever blamed you. It has been five decades since that tragic day, and it is time for you to stop blaming yourself.


A few months ago, I spoke to Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, who was gunned down by Michael Dunn for playing his music too loud. Halfway through our conversation, McBath broke down in tears. She wondered aloud if people blamed her. She spoke of sometimes silently blaming herself for her son’s death.


America does this to us.

They will riddle black bodies with bullets, broadcast it in high definition and then wonder why we run from police officers. They will cage us in pockets of poverty, refuse to employ us and then castigate us for robbing, stealing and drug dealing. They will funnel us into understaffed, underfunded, segregated schools while blaming us for not focusing on education.


Although we all live in America, we are—more often than not—the victims of her brutality. Even though the city of Memphis is filled with black people, black people were not responsible for the fact that Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in a trash compactor on Feb. 1, 1968. Black Memphians played no part in the city’s refusal to give its black sanitation employees better working conditions and equal pay. And it was definitely not black Memphis’ fault that Martin Luther King came here to fight for justice and equality on behalf of the 700 sanitation strikers.

“My mother told me it was the only time she saw her father cry,” said Rachel Knox, speaking to The Root about King’s assassination. Knox, a native of Memphis, explained how her grandfather hosted many of the striking workers and felt partly responsible for King’s presence in the city.


Maybe it is because they are overwhelmed by the week’s events, but everyone in this city of 650,000 seems to have a personal story about the death of King. But they don’t boast of their connection to the tragedy; they speak in apologies. They wear it like a stain they have been trying to scrub out of their city for years.

Five decades ago, in one day, in the city that created Beale Street, introduced us to barbecue, birthed rock ’n’ roll and gave us Elvis Presley, the Lorraine Motel became our national wailing wall, and Memphis is still recovering. (Not from Elvis. He was a hero to most, but ... )


Memphis never recovered because it held on to the shame for too long. The city still has the highest poverty rate in the nation. Even though the city is 64 percent black, more than one-third of its black residents live below the poverty line, according to a 2017 study from the University of Memphis (pdf). Violent crime is so high in the metropolitan area that Forbes lists Memphis as the fourth-most-dangerous city in America. Still, this is not the fault of black Memphians.

The black unemployment rate is 4 percent in Memphis, nearly 3 points lower than the national average. The black graduation rate is soaring in the area. But the city specifically courts companies to come to Memphis by bragging about how low the wages are in the area. Black people in Memphis were always willing to work and educate themselves. This has never been their fault.


And, still, you fight.

You continue to rebuild. People like Rachel Knox work with the Hyde Foundation to uplift the city with progressive ideas, building on the legacy of her ancestors’ work. Knox, a whirling barbed wire of history and anecdotes. (Everyone should hear her trap-Wikipedia version on the history of her beloved hometown that ends with: “ ... that’s Memphis in a nutshell, and why Nashville is a garbage city!”)


Young people like Victoria Jones and the CLTV organization are combining art and activism to highlight the plight of inequality in Memphis. “I chose to come back here,” Jones told The Root. “I wanted to live in Memphis because, of all the places I’ve lived, it felt like home.”


Memphis rises with the help of Ekundayo Bandele. His Hattiloo Theater is the only black repertory theater in a five-state radius and focuses on outreach to Memphis’ black community. It must be pointed out that—even though he is a fierce advocate for Memphis—Bandele is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. I only mention this because Bandele only mentioned it 1,029 times. (Which is actually a below-average number of mentions for a Brooklynite. But then again, we only spoke for a few minutes.)

Knox, Jones and Bandele aren’t simply community activists trying to instill hope and confidence into a seemingly downtrodden town. They are using two important tools to rebuild the city: organization and money.


“I don’t think we are ashamed of what happened in Memphis,” said Bandele. “But we recognize that overcoming that tragedy means we have to invest in this city and make sure that the city invests in Memphis. Black Memphis particularly.”

Memphis, let this 50th anniversary be your absolution. Lift your chin and remember that you are not alone. You are one of many black cities left smoldering in the wake of America’s slash-and-burn efforts to maintain white supremacy. Ask the Birminghamians who remember the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Ask the Tulsans who fled before the city set Black Wall Street afire.


Ask the people who booked Malcolm at the Audubon Ballroom. Ask the people at the NAACP meeting from which Medgar Evers was returning. Ask Trayvon Martin’s dad, who let him go to the store. Ask Philando Castile’s fiancee.

James Earl Ray was not your own. If King hadn’t been killed here, whoever killed him would have chosen another place. Death would have eventually found King because America always finds a soul to swallow.


The blame belongs to the hate that this country fomented for 400 years. It is not your fault. It never was. Do not forget this. Even more importantly, after a half-century has passed, you should never forget, darling Memphis ...

You are still beautiful.


Black people

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.