To see how much Memphis has changed in the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, look to the city’s landscape.
Last month, MLK50’s editor asked this on Facebook:
More than 100 suggestions poured in, of neighborhood tours and meals at black-owned restaurants. Some sites pointed to the pride in black political and economic power. Some locations reflected the frustration about the progress yet to be made.
The following places were chosen from the thread. Start scrolling and pause on the photos to see Memphis in action. Or click on the links below to jump to that site. (Address and contact information are included where possible.)
LIFEline to Success • Manna House • Freedom Preparatory Academy •
Tri-State Bank of Memphis • Orange Mound • Memphis City Hall’s Hall of Mayors • I-40 Bridge • Historic markers • Confederate statues • Clayborn Temple • National Civil Rights Museum • The Streets
LIFEline to Success
1647 Dellwood Avenue, Frayser • (901) 729-6537
“They are practicing his dream and living by his example, in one of the most neglected areas of our city. He would be proud, and there would be the loudest cries of joy you’d ever heard…as well as some fainting and dancing, maybe a few cuss words…lol. but yeah, that’s what I would do.” — Jana Wilson
On a Thursday morning, men and women in neon shirts that read “Blight Patrol” sit in a blue room in Frayser. Pastor DeAndre Brown, the founder and executive director of Lifeline to Success, calls this place The Institute. He is at the front of the room, wearing a blazer and leading an impromptu singalong of Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playing Tricks on Me.”
The Institute is one part of a multiyear program for the participants. They are ex-offenders who gather a few days a week in the classroom in fellowship and talk through the issues of life after their convictions. Brown focuses on conflict resolution and anger management, keeps his Christian faith as a guiding star, and also carries an easy conversation with the group, casually citing scholar Michelle Alexander and the Geto Boys while acknowledging the systemic barriers to transformation.
“Our members come to us depressed, torn and experiencing extreme trauma,” Brown says on the program’s website. “They’ve tried every other avenue and realized nothing else will work. We take them back to wherever it was they messed up — sometimes that’s 20 years ago — repair whatever is in their mind that triggered it and then build them up and bring them back to where they are today.”
The participants work with Clean Memphis, Just City, the Frayser Exchange Club and other local nonprofits. Their successes so impressed Memphis City Council members that in 2016, the council gave LIFEline $200,000 — $50,000 more than Brown had been prepared to ask for. The program’s goal is reconnecting participants to job opportunities, their families and themselves. They are always reminded: They are not the sum of their charges.
1268 Jefferson Avenue, Midtown • (901) 219–2117
For more than a decade, the house on Jefferson Street has served as a place for hospitality, not charity, for the city’s unsheltered. Manna House is grounded in the Catholic Worker Movement and offers food, showers and clean clothing to their guests.
“We are not a social service agency,” reads the organization’s website. “Rather we are persons welcoming other persons to share ourselves, our gifts, and gifts we have received from others…we seek to be stewards of God’s graciousness, not possessors of power and privilege dispensing charity from above. We seek to build relationships and we are not out to ‘save’ people or remake them in our own image.”
Manna House denounces racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism in creating their community. Their mission finishes with: “We recognize our own vulnerability and brokenness as we minister with our guests who are also vulnerable and broken.”
Freedom Preparatory Academy
Four campuses across Memphis • (901) 425-2019
“It’s often been said that education is the battleground of the Civil Rights movement…I would take him to Freedom Prep Academy. It’s a charter school started by and still led by Black people in Memphis. Not only is it a high performing network of schools they teach kids morality, instill social justice and self-worth within their beings.” — John C. Cornes
An alumna of Rhodes College, Roblin Webb started Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with just over 100 students and 11 staff members. Today, FPA includes four schools in Westwood and Whitehaven and serves more than 1,600 students. FPA’s first high school class graduated in 2017 with a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to Chalkbeat. This is a likely result of their practice maximizing learning time in an attempt to level the playing field for their students that come from underserved communities.
“I knew I had a passion for doing something that would have a closer to equalizing effect on people of color in poverty,” Webb told the Memphis Daily News. “That has always been my passion. As an entrepreneur — no. I’m the reluctant leader. But I felt like I needed to do something more for others and do more for black people in our community, especially in Memphis.”
Tri-State Bank of Memphis
4606 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Whitehaven • (901) 398–1342
“It was here when he visited and it’s still standing. It is a small testament to the power of the black dollar. What could we do were we to unite the spending of over 400,000 Black people here? I think Dr. King asked the same question.” — Reginald Pruitt
On April 3, 1968, in the final speech before his death, King pressed those at Mason Temple who stood in support of the striking sanitation workers to move their money to Tri-State Bank.
“These are some practical things that we can do,” King said about his call to doing business with the black-owned bank here in Memphis. “We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts.”
Dr. J.E. Walker, who also founded Universal Life Insurance Co., started the bank with his son Maceo after World War II. It provided mortgage loans to thousands of black families, opened it boardroom to host meetings for the local civil rights movement and even provided bail money to protestors.
In the 1960s, Tri-State made loans to black farmers in Mississippi when white lenders cut them off for trying to vote. From 1974 until late last year, the bank was headquartered in a building on the former site of a school that was burned down in the 1866 Memphis Massacre. (The building was sold last December.) In 1982, Tri-State provided $60,000 in loans to help turn the Lorraine Motel,where King was assassinated, avoid foreclosure and become the National Civil Rights Museum.
It continues to have branches in Whitehaven and in Orange Mound. The Orange Mound location is inside the Kroger that the grocery corporation recently announced it will be closing effectively removing the only grocery store from the neighborhood, as well as the only local banking institution.
The historically black neighborhood along Park Avenue between Airways Boulevard and Semmes Street
“I’d also take him to Orange Mound, a historic community in this country, so he can see that in spite of some areas of blight, people still have pride in the community and want to restore it to its former greatness.” — Janice Frazier-Scott
Orange Mound was the first neighborhood for African-Americans built by African-Americans. In 1890, Elzey Eugene Meacham bought land from the former Deaderick plantation and sold the parceled off land to black folks at $40 a lot. Today the community is home to more than 6,000 residents and about 97 percent of them are black.
While the neighborhood has endured socioeconomic ups and downs in the 127 years since it was established, being a part of Orange Mound remains a source of pride and joy for many.
Memphis City Hall’s Hall of Mayors
125 North Main Street, Downtown • 901-576–6000
“Walk through the front door. The symbolism would transcend anything” — DeJuan Hendricks
More than 60 stately portraits of men who held the highest city office hang in a room on the first floor of Memphis’s City Hall. All of the men but two are white. Willie Herenton, elected in 1992, was Memphis’s first elected black mayor and served for five terms. A C Wharton, elected in 2009, was the city’s second elected black mayor and served until 2015, when he lost his re-election bid to current mayor Jim Strickland.
(Memphis also had two pro tem mayors who were black, but they only served for a few weeks each.)
Some of the names beneath the portraits ring familiar as names on the city’s street signs and parks.
Winchester. Overton. Douglass. Watkins. Loeb.
Mayor Henry Loeb served two terms in the 1960s. When running for office in 1959, he called for a “white unity” ticket to oppose black political organizing. That year, he was also quoted as calling integration “anarchy.” Time Magazine called him “intransigent” in his handling of negotiations with striking sanitation workers and blamed him for King’s assassination.
His portrait, spotlit with track lighting, hangs on the southern wall.
Interstate 40 Bridge
Hernando DeSoto bridge over the Mississippi
The bridge that crosses the Mississippi River and connects Memphis to Arkansas is also the site of the largest spontaneous act of peaceful civil disobedience since the sanitation strikes of 1968.
On July 10, 2016, after a week that marked two deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police (Philando Castile and Alton Sterling), thousands of Memphians marched through the city’s downtown to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
Protestors walked off the bridge that evening with the promise that some of their demands would be met, or at the very least, heard. Those demands included limiting policy and practices that contribute to poverty as well as an increase in spending on education and community resources in low-income neighborhoods. A follow-up community meeting at Greater Imani Church with city officials ended in tension and disappointment.
“The bad news is that we’re all we’ve got, but the good news is we’re all we got,” activist Nour Hantouli said last summer when reflecting on the progress in the year since the historic action.
See some of MLK50’s coverage of the event and reflection on it a year later: Bridge protest
Memphis Massacre of 1866 at Army-Navy Park; The Lynching of Ell Person on Summer Avenue, just past the Wolf River
These two markers were named as examples of how city and state officials have handled Memphis’s complicated history of racial violence.
The 1866 Memphis Massacre marker went up in 2016, 150 years to the day from when the violence began. The marker, the results of efforts by the Memphis NAACP and National Parks Service, notes the three days of gruesome violence by mobs of white men who (led by law enforcement) killed and raped black Memphians and set their churches and schools on fire. The NAACP circumvented the Tennessee Historical Commission’s involvement after they suggested the inclusion of the term “race riots,” which implicates both sides, to describe what has been historically proven to be one-sided violence.
The marker near the site of where Ell Persons was lynched went up in 2016. The Memphis chapter of the Lynching Sites Project, an organization created to respond to Bryan Stevenson’s call to properly memorialize lynching victims, put the marker up 100 years after Persons, a black woodcutter, was lynched before a “carnival-like atmosphere.”
Confederate statue sites
Nathan Bedford Forrest statue stood at Health Sciences Park at Union and Madison avenues ; Jefferson Davis statue stood at Memphis Park downtown along Front Street.
The statue of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis had only been up a few years when King was here in 1968. The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been the driving force of erecting the statue in 1964. “This is a matter of pride for Memphis,” said Mrs. Harry Allen, leader of the fund drive. “Memphis is the only major city in the South that does not have a statue of this great man.”
About a mile and a half away, another park bore the name of Confederate general and slaver Forrest, whose legacy was glorified in a huge statue at the park’s center.
Today, King would find two vacant platforms surrounded by barricades.
294 Hernando Street, Downtown • 901-614–4294
Throughout the 1960s, Clayborn Temple was a staging ground for the city’s civil rights movement. The church was the place where sanitation strike organizers gathered to try and reform Memphis Public Works policies that included discrimination, poverty wages and unsafe working conditions that led to the Feb. 1, 1968 deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed in a malfunctioning garbage truck.
Clayborn’s pastor, Rev. Malcolm Blackburn, a white man, opened the church to host the strategy meetings and community gatherings throughout the strike. It was from here that the iconic “I Am A Man” signs were distributed. When Dr. King arrived in Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers, nearly 15,000 people gathered at Clayborn Temple to march alongside him.
The March 28, 1968 demonstration turned into a melee after police attacked protesters. Marchers ran back to Clayborn Temple for safety, but soon police burst into the church and tear gassed people there. As they dispersed, chaos throughout the city ended in the death of Larry Page, a 16-year-old boy, shot by a police officer. His open-casket funeral was held at Clayborn Temple.
King returned to Memphis a week later, to prove he could lead a nonviolent demonstration in support of the strikers. He was assassinated April 4, 1968 before he had a chance to do so. On April 8, 1968, Coretta Scott King, the SCLC and union leaders led 42,000 people from Clayborn Temple to the courthouse demanding that Mayor Henry Loeb honor their strikers’ demands. And on April 16, 1968, a deal was finally reached.
In 1999, Clayborn Temple closed and fell into disrepair, but reopened in 2015. On Sundays, congregants of the Downtown Church gather. The rest of the week, it serves as a meeting space and performance venue.
National Civil Rights Museum (The Lorraine Motel)
450 Mulberry Street, Downtown • (901) 521–9699
The motel, the site of Dr. King’s assassination, is home to the National Civil Rights Museum, one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.
It has served as a staging ground for protests for issues ranging from living wage, public transportation policy and immigration to gun violence, police brutality and homelessness.
The Commercial Appeal named their 2017 Citizen of the Year “The Memphis Citizen Activist.” Organizing in this city is a test of persistence and commitment, which is why suggestions of where to take King also echoed the profound admiration for those who stand up and show up for justice in the streets and at meetings.
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