On a rainy Saturday when 13 blocks of Downtown Memphis were surrounded by police with no cars, trucks or people on foot allowed, you didn’t have to look very far to find reminders of the spring of 1968.
The young law enforcement officers in riot gear with helmets and shields who became the image of the city’s response to the Ku Klux Klan rally at the Shelby County Courthouse were too young to know the feel of the city 45 years ago.
Around them were signs of the new city built almost on top of the city we were all those years ago – almost.
Old buildings with bricked-in windows and sealed doorways are on its fringes. You can’t get to 1968 from here but in other ways it is still there.
That brings us to where we are as a city and a depressing concept: that 45 years after the sanitation workers strike ripped away the phony veneer of racial progress built on the premise of side by side separation, some believe we still have to be separated and controlled. We have to be watched.
We have to ask: Are we building another veneer that prevents us from having the discussions that should be the legacy of Memphis in 1968?
If we can’t take the risk of being together to talk about the issues that have remained, endured and in some cases grown since 1968, what hope is there that we can get past them?
The answer isn’t to be found in public safety measures that seal off vast sections of our city for a group of 60 extremists.
It is also true that there probably wasn’t any opportunity for discussion to be found in a rally whose trappings were designed by the Klan and police to intimidate.
The police department’s obligation was to protect the safety of citizens and property. And they did that.
But much of the precautions were a reaction to what happened 15 years ago.
And trying to enforce the idea of never again is when walls go up and order and safety become excuses for a retreat from an imperative reality. It wasn’t the intent but it was a result.
It is that type of retreat that much of our city was engaged in 45 years ago this month when the civil rights movement came to Memphis – not on the way to somewhere else, but to hold a mirror up to both sides of an identity many of us didn’t want to see.
With the passage of a lot of time, we are different.
We are better. But we are also like those who lived in that city of 1968 that bears the same name but hardly seems the same.
What are we not seeing that we should be looking for and talking about?
The story of that struggle and those moments is being written.