‘Black Lives Matter:’ A paradigm of racial failure and hope

‘Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.’

SAN DIEGO, June 17, 2020: Martin Luther King Jr. included this cogent declaration within his Nobel-acclaimed ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ in April 1963.  The preacher was confined on that occasion because he led “illegal” protests in the city against the continuing and murderous oppression and voter-suppression of black people in that community (and throughout the Old Confederacy).  Aspects of King’s heartache and moral outrage have been validated and liberated at this moment via the inspirational ‘Black Lives Matter’ uprisings.

It says something hopeful that elements of Dr. King’s Dream are being realized today by a rainbow of Americans that–especially spurred by the public execution of George Floyd–have taken to the streets because we have been finally roused by the ignominious and wretched national narrative of racism.

Birmingham notwithstanding, I wish to offer a paradigm today via another historically racialist city–Memphis, where I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 15 years or so. The Bluff City, situated on the converging Mississippi River banks of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, has strenuously tried to overcome the stigma of the MLK assassination there on April 4, 1968.  There have been successes in this hard-fought effort. It is obvious by the present and urgent social crisis that Memphis, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Dallas, Cleveland, New York, and Los Angeles (among others) have not yet acceded to the inherent dignity and equality of African-Americans.  As King also pronounced: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“There was a certain, tremulous white intimacy that bowed to the steaming Mississippi River.”

My research visits to Memphis revealed or reinforced certain perceptions that translate across the arc of our troubled nation.  Social change in the Delta region was molasses-slow and strenuous; the old, plantation life hung over Memphis like the humidity.   There was a certain, tremulous white intimacy that bowed to the steaming Mississippi River and extended to the great woodlands of Alabama and the red soils of Georgia, from porch to porch, club to club.  It danced, like the bayou fireflies, amidst the mint juleps and under the twilight of secret meetings, long drawls, clinging traditions, and polite understandings.

The 20th century failed to unhinge decades of Memphian social calcification, as well as real hardship and privation for the invisible black population—many of them former sharecroppers—who had migrated, squinting in the sun with sore feet, hungry bellies, and somber spirits, from the vanishing cotton fields now being uprooted by soybeans, novel pesticides, and new-fangled farm machines.

Ultimately, the white cabal and King the preacher, though they were not to truly interact until the bitter crossroads of early April, 1968, drew light from the same beam: The future for racial progress in Memphis lay in the cross-pollination of labor and civil rights, of unions and the organically powerless black workers.

This aligned very well with Martin Luther King’s rationale for going (against the strong protestations of his closest aides) to Memphis that spring: The bold, spontaneous, but stubborn strike by the sanitation workers, the “walking buzzards” who were cosmically underpaid, lacking insurance, benefits, or pensions, denied even access to worker lounges, restrooms, fresh uniforms, gloves, or pay when rain canceled garbage pick-up (the few white workers were paid on those days) had dramatically linked King’s civil rights mission with his growing agitation for economic justice in America.

Those painfully battered, weary, yet valiant laborers held up placards while marching: ‘I AM A MAN.’ They were effectively prophesying today’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ resurgence. Turns out every single black or brown person in America was born with the very humanity that, maybe, is finally being honored by this bloodied nation.  Ironically, bitterly, it required the murder of King on the porch of the Lorraine Motel for those MEN to finally be granted a union and a place among the white population of Memphis.  Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

 Artwork: The New York Times