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VOL. 132 | NO. 127 | Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Tourism Leaders Focus on City’s Complexity, Struggle

By Bill Dries

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Director, producer and screenwriter Craig Brewer speaks on “The Soul of Memphis” at the annual meeting of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau held Thursday, June 22, at Guest House at Graceland. (Daily News/Houston Cofield) 

Stax Records turns 60 years old this year, going back to its origins as a country music label called Satellite at a tiny studio in Brunswick. Next year marks 50 years since the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In August, it will be 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. And in 2019, the city of Memphis will mark 200 years since its founding.

With such a calendar of milestones and anniversaries, those marketing the city to tourists are getting some advice on how to explain them and the essence of Memphis.

The advice given by several speakers at the recent annual meeting of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau was keep it real, don’t apologize and realize you can’t explain everything.

“What you need to understand about being a Memphis artist is that we don’t apologize for it,” said film director, producer and screenwriter Craig Brewer, channeling advice he got from Knox Phillips of Sam Phillips Recording. “We don’t explain it because it is something that is unexplainable.”

And former Stax Records co-owner Al Bell added that the lasting impact of Memphis’ music heritage that brings people to Memphis wasn’t the intent as it was happening in real time.

“Along the way as Stax Records became more disruptive in the recorded music industry,” he said, “we quite accidentally created a culture and a way of life while at the same time building a growing, thriving business that sometimes could barely keep up with its own momentum.”

Bell and Brewer spoke from the stage at Guest House at Graceland Thursday, June 22, before several hundred tourism, business and civic leaders.

Meanwhile, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Soulsville was preparing to host the first in a new series of public forums on the way to a Memphis 3.0 economic and neighborhood development plan for the city. The plan is to be a major feature of the city’s bicentennial observances.

The attractions that bring tourists to Memphis tend to involve few Memphians, even with Graceland’s $137 million expansion since the October opening of Guest House.

But Stuart Lloyd Cohen, a Long Island, New York transplant to Memphis four years ago who is “chief motivation officer” for the CVB, said visitors want to intersect with Memphians as well as Memphis.

He described Memphis as “the birthplace of change.”

“We’re in the transformation business,” Cohen said.

Rhodes College associate history professor Charles McKinney, who holds the college’s chair of Africana studies, said the city is in the midst of a transformation that many in the room probably don’t see as part of tourism.

“Memphis once again finds itself an epicenter of movement activity,” McKinney said of the increase in protests locally in the last year.

Videos shown at the CVB meeting focused on current music and culture in Memphis and included comments from hip hop artist Marco Pave, whose first album, “Welcome to Grc Lnd,” is a “rap opera” as a commentary on recent protests.

McKinney sees a link to King’s final days and the much larger struggle that he brought to Memphis in 1968.

“He brought the titanic pressures of national leadership. He brought the pathological harassment by the FBI and the specter of his own mortality. He attracted black power advocates who openly mocked his leadership and attempted to consign nonviolent direct action to a bygone era,” McKinney said. “But more important, he brought with him a bedrock assurance that the universe was in fact morally ordered and that there was a deep, abiding relationship between power, justice and love.”

The mix of all of those elements is what King referred to as “the beautiful struggle” – a concept McKinney says can seem foreign in “an increasingly conflict-averse society.”

For McKinney, the 50th anniversary next year is a change to transform what he sees as a sanitized image of King – “at least temporarily move away from the pop culture caricatures of King that have come to characterize our collective memory.”

Those who worked with King have long complained that over the decades his image has been sanitized as he has been iconized.

“In the years after the assassination, we worked hard in this country to turn Martin King into a black Santa Claus. This version of King is a raceless, non-confrontational action figure,” McKinney told the tourism gathering.

“Let’s confront the uncomfortable and perpetually uncompleted journey that he dared us all to take,” he urged the group of its approach to the anniversary observances. “Let’s ask ourselves some questions. Have we each kept each other accountable for our mutual betterment? Have we done everything we can to make our democracy as vibrant and inclusive as possible? Have we worked to ensure that our citizens have access to good-paying jobs and functional schools – decent and safe neighborhoods?”

That may seem beyond the realm of Memphis tourism as a business that draws 10.5 million visitors to the city a year who spend $3.2 million. But the civil rights struggle chronicled in the National Civil Rights Museum is an element of the Stax Museum.

Bell, the guiding force behind Stax in the 1970s, introduced a video of Presley singing the message song “If I Can Dream” at the end of Presley’s 1968 television comeback special.

Brewer argues you can’t separate the creativity tourists come to Memphis to explore from the soul of the city.

“So many people have come here and they want results immediately. No, no, no. Don’t do that,” Brewer said. “Live and lean into it a little bit. Then it will reward you. Don’t think this is just some conveyor belt. We live this lifestyle. We don’t make rock ’n’roll. We live rock ’n’ roll. This is who we are. And by the way, it crosses all economic lines, all racial lines. This is really the best part of our city.”

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