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VOL. 7 | NO. 15 | Saturday, April 05, 2014

Past, Present, Future

Perspectives on civil rights era changing with time

By Bill Dries

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The weekend before the formal reopening of the National Civil Rights Museum, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice could be heard in the museum plaza.

From one of several columns in the courtyard that show videos about what is in the museum and the story of what happened in the courtyard, King talks in a 1968 clip about “starvation wages.” It’s a phrase that is part of the Memphis community’s ongoing debate and discussion today about economic development in a city with a past and present of enduring poverty and working poor.

“That’s what got him killed,” follows the voice of the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, the Memphis pastor who stood with King on the balcony of what was then the Lorraine Motel minutes before King was assassinated. It’s a voice that is older, in a tone mixed with the passage of more than 40 years and the travels of a life beyond 1968. King’s is still the voice of a young man. It carries further but can’t answer questions about what has come since.

In the intervening 46 years, those who also were young in 1968 have stood on the balcony where King fell, their voices steadily growing older and quieter.

Several years ago, Jesse Jackson, among the youngest in King’s inner circle from 1968, spoke from the balcony – one of countless speeches he’s made there over the years. The words were virtually the same as they had been those other times. But the voice was more subdued, quieter – somewhere between mantra and solemn chorus.

In 1991, the year the museum opened, fresh from two historic runs for president, Jackson’s voice thundered from the pulpit at Mason Temple Church of God In Christ, where King delivered his final speech the night before his death. Jackson called a roll of those who had died before King in the violent reaction to the movement, his voice breaking as he tallied the collective sacrifice.

More than 20 years after that, Beverly Robertson, executive director of the museum, knows that any group she talks to about the museum and its work has to be met immediately on the question of relevance.

“You have to connect the dots,” she said. “Many times when you talk to them about history, they say those were the olden days. … Those issues don’t occur any more. The reality is history informs the future.”

When King’s voice is heard in the museum’s courtyard in January and April to mark the anniversaries of his birth and his death, respectively, it is normally loud enough to be heard for several blocks, growing more distorted the closer you get to the temporary sound source. With the new multimedia columns, King’s voice is a permanent relative whisper by comparison that nevertheless finds its way up the hill to the edge of South Main Street.

The banners on light poles in the plaza that replaced one of the old boarding houses on South Main years ago are not images of King but of those whose names are not nearly as well known. They were among those who filled jails, who made up the columns of thousands behind King and other leaders. They confronted racism, perhaps in the blink of a flashbulb, but never in the sustained light of television and film cameras, often with no cameras present and outnumbered.

An arrest meant being fired from jobs and having to leave home to rebuild lives shattered by reprisals that were a common experience for numerous protestors.

There has always been an undercurrent among those writing the history of the movement to tell the story of those who weren’t leaders. That undercurrent has had an uneasy coexistence with what some historians and movement veterans see as an oversimplification of the movement as King’s creation and an oversimplification of King that puts him on such a pedestal that he ceases to be a realistic example of how to create social change. It’s also an observation made by veterans of the movement including former City Council member James Netters, who at age 86 still speaks to children about the Memphis of 1968.

“They know very little about Dr. Martin Luther King other than his name,” Netters said in January as the University of Memphis honored him. “They know nothing about the other leaders, particularly the local leaders. … They have no idea of who these people are.”

Earnestine Jenkins, a University of Memphis history professor and one of the renovation scholars consulted by the museum in broadening the reach of the institution’s scope, adds that there is a similar inability by many to connect the movement that started in the 1950s with efforts that came before and the experiences that built the common reaction that became a sustained global movement.

“There is nothing that will replace the sacrifice that King made,” she said. “But you also have to look at him within the context of the entire movement. That is also why we tried to bring more of what was happening in Memphis. Memphis has been an important African-American city since the Civil War … and it’s been at the center of a lot of civil rights activity since then. That’s why King came here. He didn’t have to be asked to come. He saw what the sanitation workers were doing.”

Doug Zellman of 1220 Exhibits lays out a display in the Mississippi Project Exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum.

 (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

It’s what she calls a movement of “everyday people.”

“That’s the way you see how the movement operated wherever you found it all over the country,” Jenkins added. “That human activity – resistance if you want to call it that … is the long age-old human rights story around the globe. That’s what people have been striving for since they walked off the African continent – is equal rights.”

The 1968 strike by sanitation workers that brought King to Memphis is more prominently featured in the museum after the $27 million renovation. The strike is just one part of the movement’s story that has gained greater depth and detail in not only the museum but in documentaries and a continuing stream of books that build on a growing base of knowledge.

Some of the knowledge comes from details revealed in the U.S. government’s illegal surveillance of King and the movement and other similar sources like the leaked records of Mississippi’s state Sovereignty Commission. It was information gathered specifically for the purpose of defeating the movement and King personally. But it is a vital glimpse into the reasoning behind the movement’s strategy in the context of the times.

“It’s invaluable to have it,” Jenkins said without hesitation. “I think historians sort of resolve those kinds of issues for themselves. You can’t work in history and not be willing to look at what the evidence tells you. It’s a different process in terms of making up your mind. We talk about the truth. It’s really not about truth. It’s about trying to present and interpret how things happened in the past and the way that they influence contemporary events, in an honest way.”

Part of the reflection is a portrait of King’s personal life that only recently has been explored through not only books but other vehicles like “The Mountaintop,” the play by Memphian Katori Hall that is a fictional account of King’s last night in which he is presented as something other than an eternally ideologically driven personality.

“I don’t know why people would think Dr. King would have to be perfect in character and that he has to be examined under a microscope for us to acknowledge the great leadership he provided this nation,” said Daphene McFerren, executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. “I think the focus on people’s personal lives today is sometimes too intrusive and often unwarranted.”

Gretton from The Nottingham Emmanuel School photographs an artifact at the museum.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

For McFerren, the surveillance of King’s personal life is part of the story of the movement as well with a relevance to be found in the recent disclosure and continuing debate about National Security Agency monitoring of telephone and email records.The values of the movement are also present in signs from the recent Arab Spring revolts in which some protestors carried signs reading “I Am A Man” in Arabic.

Robertson too argues that exhibits like the one on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education exhibit on school integration raises pointed questions about the present in Shelby County.

“We wanted to help people to understand some of the things that are going on in Memphis and in the world even today as it relates to school desegregation,” she said. “Things are happening in Memphis today that are still connected to that.”

Daniel Kiel, a professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, was a consultant on the Brown exhibit, which he said was a challenging story to relate.

“In some ways, it was a culmination of years and years and years of legal struggle,” he said. “But in some ways it was the simplest part of the entire enterprise.”

Kiel produced a documentary on the “Memphis 13,” the group of African-American children who racially integrated Memphis public schools in 1961. The interviews raised questions about how memory and perspective shift with the passage of years.

“Memory is always reflected through the present. What did it really feel like when they walked through those school doors in 1961? I don’t think that we’ll ever really know that,” he said. “But what we know is what it feels like when they remember it. I think that is a valuable thing to have captured. Even though it’s reflected through the present, I think it’s about as close as we can get to what it was like to be on the front lines of the civil rights movement.”

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