Hotels are booked up and city officials prepare to block off streets as political leaders, journalists and others from around the country pour into Downtown Memphis to attend events in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The National Civil Rights Museum is holding a series of events to honor King April 2–4, including symposiums with nationally-known speakers and panel members, and journalists from around the world are expected to attend. April 4 will be “a day of remembrance,” culminating in the wreath laying and bell toll at 6:01 p.m., the time of Dr. King’s death. After the ceremony, those who paid the $100 ticket price will gather at Crosstown Concourse for a gala reception followed by “An evening of storytelling” by civil rights leaders.
Yet, in the impoverished South Memphis neighborhood just blocks away from the museum and Clayborn Temple, from where King led the sanitation workers’ march in 1968, residents say the celebrations are not for them.
“Honestly, the events are depressing. They don’t capture what goes on here, ” said native Memphian Nate Henderson, 38, as he rested on the foundation of a building that had been demolished, turning his face in the direction of Clayborn Temple as he spoke. The restoration process for the historical church began in late 2015, 11 years after the $250 million-dollar FedEx Forum was built directly across the street named after King.
He added that he gives the city “C for effort” for its attempts to remember King.
There was a consensus among community members interviewed that what they see as the true message of King is lost in translation — in rhetoric and in policy.
“Dr. King and what he fought for — they’re letting it die. The people running the show, I mean,” said Robert McCrainey.
“If there is a change, it won’t be in our lifetime. Or in our kids’. Or in our grandkids’, probably.”
Katrina Lampkin, who lives in East Memphis but goes to the neighborhood often to visit her sister at work and grab a beverage at the corner store, said she didn’t know any events were planned until she saw a large crowd gathering on the corner late last week.
“I knew they were building the I AM A MAN Plaza, but that’s it,” said Lampkin, 36. She does not plan to attend any of the events.
For some, reflection on King sparked negative emotions regarding his tragic death and the realities in Memphis since.
“Nothing has changed in the past 50 years,” said Lampkin. “I would like to see the crime rate go down and some of these homes and building be put to good use instead of being knocked down.”
Where there used to be warehouses and homes, she pointed out, there are mostly abandoned lots.
“There are just lots of old buildings and warehouses empty, but nowhere to live.”
As she spoke, she stood just one block north of the former site of Foote Homes, a public housing development at Danny Thomas and Mississippi Boulevards that was torn down in 2017. The land will become a centerpiece of the $250 million South City development that will include mixed-income housing and subsidized commercial businesses, scheduled for completion in 2021.
McCrainey, who is unemployed, said that he would like to have a job, but stays outside during the day to ask for money. He says he is faced with very few other options other than theft, which he refuses to do.
“There are no more opportunities than there were,” McCrainey said.
“There are no jobs and there are no parks for the children to play in. There is nothing to do and there is no direction for kids to go.”
Henderson also is concerned for the younger generation and lamented that the younger generation does not understand what King fought for because no one has taught them.
“It’s always the same messaging and they’re not getting into the minds and hearts of the people who have been through it. The younger generation doesn’t understand the past,” Henderson said.
He grew up during the seventies and experienced the “tail end of the civil rights movement,” he said. He worries that conditions will remain the same and the past buried, unless black people continue to speak up.
“We’re not trying to hold white people accountable for the actions of the past, but for what’s happening now.”
King would have agreed. Exactly one year to the day before his death he said, “We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.”
McCrainey and Lampkin expressed a firm disinterest in attending any commemorative events and said that they do not know anyone who is planning to attend. Henderson, however, expressed conflict between the historical and personal importance of remembering King’ death and what he considers his “outsider” status.
“The events are not really for me,” Henderson said. “Every black person feels like the anniversary is important, but only half of white people do. There’s a lot more to what (King) did for us than some than what (some) white people say. They need to look a lot deeper,” Henderson said.
“Every year, it is the same thing said in a different way.
Yet, he went on to say that he might consider going to hear speakers from King’s family or those who marched with him. He is “proud” that the city acknowledges King, but said it is not enough.
“You know,” Henderson said, “I have Good Friday off, but I will be working on the anniversary of his death.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.