Thursday, July 24, 2014

James Lawson - Training for Nonviolent Resistance

This is another video produced by Ackerman and York, creators of A Force More Powerful, featuring the Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr.  He talks specifically about his work with the Little Rock 9 in 1958.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

James Lawson Interview - Lunch Counter Sit-Ins in Nashville

I've been working with Dr. Michael Honey on a documentary film about James Lawson this summer, and the research has led me to a number of excellent videos of Lawson talking about nonviolence.

Check out this video of Lawson reflecting on the power of transformation evident in the students participating in the Nashville sit-ins.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Declining Black Political Power in the U.S. South?

The New York Times reported yesterday that black political power appears to be in decline in the U.S. South.

While African Americans are serving as congresspeople or senators in southern state legislatures in record numbers, 313 in total according to the Times, the power these elected officials enjoy appears to be waning.
"David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a 2011 paper, “Resegregation in Southern Politics?”...charts growing Republican strength in the South...before the 1994 election, only one out of 202 black elected officials in Southern legislatures was in the minority party. After the 1994 contest, the number of Southern blacks in the minority party grew to 46 out of 260. In the aftermath of the 2010-11 elections, the proportion of Southern blacks serving in the majority – that is, the party controlling the state legislature — dropped to just 15 out of 313. In less than 20 years, the percentage of black legislators in the South serving in the majority fell from 99.5 percent to 4.8 percent."

So, in short, new legislation aimed at increasing requirements for voting alongside recently re-drawn  congressional districts have led most African American state representatives, most of whom are democrats, to serve in the minority party.  In some cases, as with Tennessee, supermajorities in the house and senate enable lawmakers in the majority party to suspend rules - which means legislation can be passed through the house and the senate without debate.

Yet The Atlantic reported in late June that the electoral landscape in the South might be changing quickly to favor African Americans, Latinos, and, potentially, the Democratic party.  
"Tupelo got its first Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years, a 37-year-old trial lawyer. Meridian got its first black mayor ever. Ocean Springs' Democratic incumbent won a third term to preside over an all-Republican board of aldermen. Mississippi Democrats proclaimed it 'Blue Tuesday.'

'It's been a long time coming,' Percy Bland, the 42-year-old mayor-elect of Meridian, told me. 'We haven't had a Democratic mayor in Meridian since '76. And we won it running away, when people thought it would be very close.'"
The Times seems to acknowledge both realities - that demographics are shifting in the south, and that the recent strategy among Republican lawmakers has been successful:
"What stands out, looking at the data, is how effective, in purely political terms, the Republican’s “white” strategy has turned out to be at the state level. Nationally, the party is enmeshed in an often bitter debate between those who argue that future success lies in building margins and turnout rates among whites, making little effort to woo minorities — or in fact actively scorning them; and those, on the other hand, who believe that this strategy can no longer work as the population of minority voters grows."
In the meantime, as legislatures across the south remain hegemonic, the recent Moral Monday demonstrations in North Carolina may prove to be a tool used more frequently across the U.S. South to influence the direction of public policy.  Sixty-four more protestors were arrested in Raleigh-Durham this past Monday.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Moral Mondays in North Carolina and the Shifting Political Landscape of the U.S. South

The political landscape in the Southern United States is changing - and like the geography seen from the window of an airplane, it may look slow, but its careening past us at 500 miles per hour.

The shift, while complicated, seems to have both a push and a pull.

And the pull is coming from the changing demographics in the United States.

For the first time in our nation's history, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that traditionally minority populations have risen to represent nearly half of all children under 5.  The Huffington Post reports:

"Fueled by immigration and high rates of birth, particularly among Hispanics, racial and ethnic minorities are growing more rapidly in numbers than whites. The decline in the U.S. white population has been occurring more quickly than expected, resulting in the first 'natural decrease' for whites – deaths exceeding births – in more than a century, census data show. For now, the non-Hispanic white population continues to increase slightly, but only because of immigration from Europe."

NPR has an excellent feature entitled "Texas 2020" which outlines the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the Lone Star State.  "Within a decade," NPR reports,
"Hispanics are projected to eclipse non-Hispanic whites as the largest race or ethnic group in Texas. It's a development that could someday shift the state's — or, given the size of Texas, even the nation's — politics. eclipse non-Hispanic whites as the largest race or ethnic group in Texas. It's a development that could someday shift the state's — or, given the size of Texas, even the nation's — politics."
This graph does a nice job illustrating the projected rate of change over time.
This pull is, in large part, the reason we have seen such relatively swift and decisive action on immigration reform in the Senate.  But, the bill may not even come up for a vote in the House.  

Senator John McCain spoke to Fox News last week about the importance of the bill: "I really don’t feel it's appropriate for me to tell [Boehner] exactly how he should handle this. But I think Republicans realize the implications for the future of the Republican Party in America if we don't get this issue behind us.”  

McCain is spot on: the implications for the bill are profound.  In the 2012 national election, President Barack Obama won 71% of the Latino vote.       

So that's the pull.  What about the push? 

In 2012, the people of Arkansas elected a majority Republican delegation to represent them in the state capitol.  That election meant, for the first time since Reconstruction, every state from the former Confederacy now has a majority Republican legislature.

The election was especially significant in Arkansas as democrats had controlled the state house since 1874.  

But as the Atlantic recently reported, just as the Southwest of the United States recently underwent a profound electoral shift, so might the American South.   Political operatives from Project New America have launched the Southern Project to monitor the shifting demographics and attitudes towards public policies emerging from state houses.   

The ubiquitous control over Southern politics enjoyed by a single party, whether Republican or Democrat, has, historically, always pushed activists to engage.  The "Solid South" emerging from the New Deal coalition of the early 20th century began to fray in 1948 amidst the Dixiecrat revolution, and President Richard Nixon completed the transition from a solidly democratic South to a solidly republican south with the successful deployment of his southern strategy in the 1968 presidential election.  

The Southern United States, then, was solidly controlled by each of the major parties during the twentieth century, and during each of these eras of complete control activists sought to change their political landscape - sometimes with nonviolent direct action.   

In North Carolina, that's exactly what's happening.  

Initially organized by the NAACP in late April of 2013, "Moral Monday" protests have been taking place at the Capitol building in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina for close to three months.  The number of demonstrators has to more than 2,500 participants from all regions of the state.

Moral Mondays were borne from a concern that legislators in North Carolina were moving, like many states, to restrict voting rights.  In recent weeks, the demonstrators have broadened their focus - and also grown their coalition.

Demonstrators are now asking legislators to address issues ranging from clean water to education policy, and increasingly protestors from the Research Triangle area in Raleigh-Durhams are being joined by citizens from rural Western North Carolina.

The Carolina Public Press reports more than 90 people were arrested at the capitol building in Raleigh last week, and more than 650 have been arrested since the demonstrations began in late April.

The demonstrations continued today, and this editorial makes plain the reason North Carolinians have chosen to go to jail these past three months:

"...when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized the Moral Mondays protests, we were happy to answer the call. 
It wasn't an easy decision. Neither of us had ever been arrested. We obey the law and teach our children to obey it, too.
But we've also been activists on behalf of what we think is right for our state and our country, going back as far as the civil rights movement. And we remember when Dr. Martin Luther King said that 'there comes a time when silence is betrayal.' 
This spring, the irresponsible North Carolina legislature has created one of those times. We had been in legal protests before. 
But they didn't seem to make a dent. 
So last Monday, we stepped up and took our stand."

"The south is the crucible where freedom has been hammered out," said historian Tim Tyson.   "This is the struggle," he continued, "its always about what happens here.  So goes the south, so goes the nation, so goes the world.  See, this fusion movement that's going on - black and brown and white, gay and straight- this is a very important historical moment.  Not just in North Carolina, but I think what happens here is gonna be very important in the history of this country."

What happened in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 was certainly key to our nation's inexorable move towards becoming a more just place - and Tyson is likely correct: our aspiration to form a "more perfect union" has so often been tempered and tested in the red clay and humidity of the U.S. South.

In Durham and Memphis, Atlanta and Itta Benna, Shreveport and Columbia, the coming years may prove critical to the our nation's ability to understand the continually evolving notions of freedom and democracy.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ronnie and Neil

Neil Young 
Ronnie Van Zant

I've been in Seattle for the past five days spending time with friends from the South.  They're ex-pats of a sort, but even amidst the coniferous forest and white firs, these boys are southern.

Still, understanding what it means to be from the South is a tricky thing.

We have to contend with the ideas that people outside the South have about the South.  Then there are the experiences we as southerners have had with other southern people; and perhaps most paradoxically, there's us: race and rebellion and DIY culture all knotted up in our ontology, kindness and gentility flanked by a deep spirit of independence and self-determination that is tempered, seemingly, only by the grace of God.

Sasha has been spinning a lot of Neil Young and Skynrd this week.  We've also discussed endlessly the new Jason Isbell record, which is markedly more introverted than his previous releases.  And all these guys have some remarkable musical connections.  

Isbell has a knack for writing well about what it means to live in the South.  Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Isbell's former bandmates in The Drive By Truckers, are also particularly poignant in their musical accounting of life in northern Alabama.

Just before Isbell joined the Truckers in late 2001, the band issued a landmark 20-song release: The Southern Rock Opera.  The album's lead track, Ronnie and Neil, instantly challenges the listener to understand the tension between the lived experience of the South and the perceptions of the South by those who don't live there.

In Ronnie and Neil, Patterson Hood used the public rift between Ronnie Van Zant and Canadian Singer-Songwriter Neil Young to illustrate the point.

"Church blew up in Birmingham
four little black girls killed
For no goddamn good reason

All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end
A stain on the good name 

A whole lot of good people dragged through the blood and glass
Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame...

And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs about the Bad shit that went down...

...Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit."

This musical sparring between Skynard and Neil Young began in 1970 when Young released Southern Man The song immediately struck resonant emotional chords - chords which both told a truth about life in the south and obscured much of what it meant to be southern. 

"I saw cotton

And I saw black

Tall white mansions

And little shacks.

Southern man

When will you Pay them back?

I heard screamin' And bullwhips cracking

How long? How long?"

Van Zant challenged Neil Young's didactic simplification of the South in Skynrd's 1974 top ten hit, Sweet Home Alabama:

"Well I heard mister Young sing about her (Alabama)
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down 
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember 
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow."

For Van Zant and Skynrd, the south was about family and music, natural beauty and kinship; but was it possible to love the south without subscribing its more sordid parts?  

The Truckers certainly think so.  In The Southern Thing," Patterson Hood proclaimed:  

"(The South) Ain't about no hatred - better raise a glass
It's a little about some rebels but it ain't about the past
Ain't about no foolish pride, Ain't about no flag
Hate's the only thing that my truck would want to drag

...Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
(The) Duality of the southern thing."

Perhaps, then, at the center of today's Southern Man and Woman there lives a paradox. A love of one's own culture and family mixed with an openness and welcome; a spirit of rebellion washed over with a sense of collective responsibility; In the South, a firm grasp on a difficult history helps us focus on the future.

In typical fashion, Isbell seemed to sum up well this tension in a recent Facebook post about Paula Deen.

Ronnie and Neil nurtured a positive relationship through to Ronnie's early death in October of 1977, although Thrasher's Wheat contends that Young didn't actually serve as a Pall Bearer in Young's funeral.  Still, Hood sang about the duality of Ronnie and Neil, an emblem of the duality of the South: 

"Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends their feud was just in song
Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song
So he wrote ‘Powder Finger’ for Skynyrd to record
But Ronnie ended up singing “Sweet home Alabama” to the Lord
Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground

And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around."


Friday, June 21, 2013

Marshall Taylor: The Black Cyclone and the Color Line

Marshall Taylor was the fastest man in the world in 1900.  

Taylor broke dozens of world records before he was 30, and competed regularly - also winning regularly - across the United States and Europe.  As a black man in America in the early 20th century, Taylor's accomplishments were especially remarkable.  Taylor won a world cycling championship more than a decade before before the legendary Jack Johnson, "The Black Bomber," won his world boxing title.  

Taylor dominated the track, whether in short races or in the infamous "six-day races"  popular in the early 20th century.   The Smithsonian reported:

" 1896, he finished eighth in his first six-day race at New York’s Madison Square Garden, even though the hallucinations got to him; at one point he said, 'I cannot go on with safety, for there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.'”

Despite Taylor's success - he had seven world records to his name before he was 20, winning 29 or the 49 races he entered - he was banned from riding in the American South.   In 1902, Taylor traveled to Europe where he would continue to dominate the track.

Taylor would retire at 32 in Chicago, IL, where he would write and publish his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World.   “I felt I had my day,” he wrote, “and a wonderful day it was too.” 

The financial collapse of 1929 and bad investments would leave Taylor penniless by the time of his death at 53 in 1932. His body would lay unclaimed in a morgue, and he was buried in a modest grave at Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Chicago.

Frank Schwinn, head of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, would later pay to have Taylor's body exhumed and relocated to Mount Glenwood's  Memorial Garden of the Good Shepard.  Schwinn also commissioned a plaque for Taylor's grave, which despite it's pejorative commentary on "his race," is touching nonetheless:

"Worlds champion bicycle racer who came up the hard way—Without hatred in his heart—An honest, courageous and God-fearing, clean-living gentlemanly athlete.  A credit to his race who always gave out his best—Gone but not forgotten.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Photos from the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968

As part of their Digital Photo Repository, The University of Memphis has a fantastic collection of photos from the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968.  Jim Lawson, chair of the strike's leadership committee, was a key leader in the Memphis campaign.

Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. marching with strike supporters during one of the twice daily marches held in downtown Memphis throughout the campaign.

Rev. Lawson addresses the crowd at the Memphis Cares event held just days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Crump Stadium in Midtown Memphis

Rev. Lawson addresses the City Council in February of 1968 after the council rejected the workers' call for union recognition
 The University of Memphis' digital archive has a host of excellent photos from Memphis' past, and the photos in the Sanitation Strike are just a sampling of the overall collection available in the archive. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shelby Foote on William Faulkner and the American South in the 1920s and 1930s

The Paul Barret Library at Rhodes College recently acquired Shelby Foote's paper collection, including the personal journal's he kept as he wrote his epic tome, The Civil War.

I stumbled onto this C-SPAN interview this morning while doing some research, and it provides an interesting window into Foote's perspective on racial paternalism in the south.  Scroll to 10 minutes from a particularly interesting discussion of the white southern mentality.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Being Memphis: Martin King, W. W. Herenton, Al Kapone and the Memphis Grizzlies

Between games 2 and 3 of the Western Conference Finals, with the Grizz down 2 - 0 to the San Antonio Spurs, Geoff Calkins wrote a column as the best of 7 match-up prepared to shift to Memphis.  
"Memphis was once a city of pessimists," Calkins wrote. "Memphis was once a city that expected the worst.

"Much of this is because of what happened on April 4, 1968. Walk over to the Lorraine Motel, stand before it, look on that wreath, and you can almost feel the sadness descend. 

Memphis was a city of sadness, and of conflict and of flight.

Memphis was yellow fever and the sanitation workers strike. Memphis was an unruly river and ungodly heat. 

This spilled into everything, into politics, even into sports. Have you ever heard of a city trying to fight off the arrival of a major-league team? A whole bunch of Memphians fought against the Grizzlies because they said -- this was the actual logic -- that the team would inevitably fail and leave.

Now those same Memphians have painted their faces and their toenails and possibly even their houses blue. 

They have turned growl towels into neckties and have worn them to church. They are naming their dogs Z-Bo and Big Spain.

Memphians are calling the Greenline the Grindline until future notice. They have stuck a headband on Le Bonheur’s giant heart logo. Midtown Skate Shop can’t keep enough 'Grind City' T-shirts in stock. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital hung a giant growl towel that says, 'St. Jude believes.'"

Calkins concluded: "Memphis is no longer a city of pessimists. Memphis is a city of newfound faith."

But how did the Memphis Grizzlies, a professional basketball team, so effectively help our city roll back the tide of grief and guilt spanning more than a generation to make such a profound civic attitude adjustment?  What was it about these guys, this team, and their work together that was so special?  


On April 7, 1968 – Palm Sunday – the Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. spoke to a crowd of 9,000 people gathered at E. H. Crump Stadium in Midtown Memphis.  Lawson had been a critical leader in the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, and as he stared at the audience from a platform on the fifty yard line at Crump Stadium, Lawson’s voice rose with indignation.  He called the assassination of Martin Luther King “God’s judgment on you and me and upon our city,” and issued what turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy for the City of Good Abode:  “How can anyone have a good feeling about Memphis when one of the finest sons of this world of ours was shot down in her streets...And no matter how much we try, from now until there is no longer any written history, Memphis will be known as the place where Martin Luther King was crucified.”  

John T. Fisher, the tallest man pictured center, was a key organizer of the Memphis Cares event in 1968
Lawson had known King for years before inviting him to Memphis in the spring of 1968.  The two men had met in 1957 when King spoke at Oberlin College where Lawson was a student of divinity. Lawson and King sat beside one another at dinner that night, and they discovered they both had a deep interest in Mohandas Gandhi and, in particular, Gandhi's notion of satyagraha

Lawson and King appear together at a press conference in Memphis following the unravelling of a nonviolent march in late March 1968
Rev. Ben Hooks openly weeps during the Memphis Cares event in early April 1968
David Halberstam tells us that Lawson's wife, Dorothy, knew despite her husband's best efforts to publicly conceal his emotion, Lawson's grief over King's death was tremendous. "He would not be able to sleep," Halberstam writes, "and he would get up in the middle of the night and read in the Bible about the prophets, or do some writing.  There were times after King's murder when his grief was so great he wondered whether he could go on - there had been so much killing: John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin King and Malcolm X."

In the years following the assassination, Lawson often visited the man convicted of killing King, James Early Ray.  Lawson actually developed a relationship with both Ray and his fiance, Anna.  Lawson was long a staunch believer in the power of love and forgiveness, and despite the pain he felt over his friend's death, his relationship with Ray deepened over time.  One evening years after the assassination, just as the Lawson family was sitting down for dinner, Ray called James Lawson with a request: Ray asked Lawson to conduct the marriage ceremony between he and his fiance Anna.  Lawson was confounded by the request, and at dinner he asked his family what to do.  Lawson's son, John Lawson, told his father that if he truly believed in the all that nonviolence and redemption he had preached his whole life, he would marry Ray and Anna.  

Indeed, John concluded, Martin King would have married the couple. 
The civil rights icon  Lawson would leave Memphis in 1974 for a church in Los Angeles, and it would be nearly 20 before Memphis elected its first black mayor.  In 1991, Willie W. Herenton became the first black mayor of Memphis, and the city became the last city among the top 50 US metro areas with a majority black population to elect a black mayor.   W. W. Herenton defeated incumbent Dick Hackett by 142 votes. 

In October 2007, after being elected to his fifth term after a campaign centered on "Shake Them Haters Off," W. W. Herenton delivered victory remarks to a raucous crowd of supporters. 

"...I want you, I just want you to be just a little quiet just for a couple of minutes, just for a couple of minutes. A good man obtaineth favor of the Lord. Wait a minute. I want y'all to hear me. I'm in a very serious mood. I'm happy, but I want y'all to hear me."

W.W. Herenton following his election to the office of Memphis Mayor for a fifth consecutive term, October 2007
Herenton spent the first half of his speech thanking his supporters - both those conditional and un-conditional supporters - but he then turned his focus to the onslaught of criticism he'd faced.     

The Commercial Appeal reported the second half of Herenton's speech this way: "'There are some mean people in Memphis,' Herenton said in a speech punctuated with hoots of approval from his supporters. 'They some haters. ... But I know about haters and I know about shaking 'em off.'  ... 'But what they (white people) want to say is, "How can Willie Herenton bring us together?"... I didn't separate us ... I don't have a problem. They've got the problem.'"

Columnist Wendi Thomas, non-plussed by "Shake Them Haters Off," called for alternative slogans for Herenton's campaign.  

Cordova's Millie Askew contributed this one: "Herenton for Memphis, Home of the Movers and the Shakers. I'll shake while they move."

A funny slogan on the surface - except move they did.  

Askew's slogan was a reference to Mayor Herenton's previous directive to Memphians who were critical of his leadership.  If you don't like Memphis, Herenton told his supporters, you can leave

Hearing this as a college student in my early 20s, having grown up in a place recently described as the dirtiest city in the dirty-dirty south, it meant that I watched as many of my friends took Herenton's advice and left Memphis. 

Memphis Magazine affirmed the flight of the young  in 2013:
The Memphis region toppled from #37 to #49 in the percentage of the population older than 25 with college degrees.  It was 26.3 percent in 2006 and 25.1 percent in 2012.
Memphis has fallen four spots to dead last in the ranking of percentage of creative professionals — from #47 to #51 with a decrease from 5.2 percent to 2.4 percent.
Memphis has fallen from #36 to #46 in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees — from 3.8 percent to 3.6 percent.
Memphis is #43 in the number of foreign-born residents with college degrees. In the 2006 report, Memphis was #40 with 7.5 percent and fell three spots to 7.7 percent in 2012.

Now, as the Atlantic points out, the struggle to capture the best and brightest is not always a race to the top.  And yet talent still matters.  At the very least, you don't want to encourage the talent you have to get the heck out.  

Zach Randolph, Getty Images, courtesy of
On January 31, 2013, the Memphis Grizzlies traded "franchise player" Rudy Gay to another country.  The six-man swing-trade shipped Gay and his $82 million dollar contract to Toronto in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye from Detroit and Ed Davis from the Toronto.  The most scrutinized NBA trade of 2012-2013, the shift helped Memphis become a better team.   

Gay was long and had capable of sexy dunks.  But as the New York Times reported, "...Gay was one of the most inefficient volume shooters in the N.B.A. this season. Among players with at least 1,000 field goal attempts, Gay’s .449 effective field goal percentage was the third worst in the league."

In plain terms, Gay took a ton of shots and few of them fell through the hoop.  

Gay's departure allowed Memphis to open up its offense, spreading Gay's touches out across Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.   Conley ended up with a banner year following the trade, while Mike and Marc regularly went for 15 or 20 a night.

So Memphis, despite intense criticism, defied the superstar model in favor of a team based effort - an old school approach for an old school Coach in Lionel Hollins who put team over self.  This team-first message was regularly reiterated by the Grizzlies in their post-game press conferences and locker room interviews.  

The Grizzlies, ultimately, decided to be the Grizzlies - not the team the critics and pundits wanted them to be.  And that means we didn't have a great offense; in fact, in the recently completed series against the Spurs, the team collectively shot below 39% from the field.  

But even in their final losing games, the Grizzlies worked as a team.  And that's what makes this crew so special.  They embraced their faults - an inefficient offense and a spotty bench - but they also embraced their strengths night-in and night-out: a tenacious, league best defense; a slow and grinding half-court offense, and a tough - and I mean tough - set of players who were willing to bang inside all night long.     

When the Grizzlies embraced their identity, the City of Memphis fell in love with the team.  

See, Memphis (both the Grizzlies and the city) did something especially significant this year.  It was an accomplishment with its roots sunk into years, flooded with muddy Mississippi River water and saturated by stifling heat and humidity.   

It was an achievement that spans basketball and civil rights, that includes A C and W.W., and smells like a beer-soaked goat on a historic slice of street known for gambling, black-owned business, and ruffians.

To elaborate on Geoff Calkins point, the reason Memphis became a place of "newfound hope" these past couple years is because we finally decided to be us.  We decided to be Memphis.  

We decided to embrace an inefficient offense, replete with Tony Allen jump shots; we also decided to accept our past rather than fight it - something we did in the living by gathering just a mile from where King was killed for regular civic celebrations at the grindhouse.

"I don't know if making it to the Western Conference Finals and having the best season in the history of the franchise is inspiration or a rallying cry for a city with fearsome problems," wrote Spencer Hall at SB Nation.  "I never know how much that means to a city, particularly one I don't call home. I don't know if the Saints really did help New Orleans accomplish anything by winning the Super Bowl, or if New York felt any better after 9/11 because of baseball, or if any storyline about a city and the very real business of professional sport helping it cope with life actually exists for the purposes of anything but well-edited inspirational ESPN montages. I'm skeptical about it because it's so easy to say, and easy things and Memphis don't really match up a lot."

This editorial resonates because we all know Memphis isn't easy.  And maybe that's why we Memphians resisted "doing us" for so long - because it wasn't easy.  But I think we're becoming more comfortable being known for "Whoop that Trick," the reinvention of once admonished players, and for the fact that "We don't Bluff."  

Memphis is real.  It's got real problems, real promise, and real people.  We don't have time for bluffing, and we certainly don't have time for backsliding.  

"My children are being raised in a new Memphis," wrote Richard Alley, "one with possibilities imagined from the uppermost reaches of government down to the teacher in the classroom, from the 7-foot-1 defensive player of the year to the CEO to the waitress serving sweet tea."

Maybe it's a new Memphis.  

Or, maybe it's the same old Memphis, just happy - for the first time in decades - to be who we are.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A New Memphis

The first law of thermodynamics states that within a closed system, energy can be neither created nor destroyed.  I learned this from Professor Rosanna Cappellato, a friend and colleague who left us this year after courageously battling cancer.  

As I look back at 2012, a year filled with achievement and loss, deep sadness and profound joy, I see this law at work. 

In late November, one of my senior students in the Bonner Scholar Program at Rhodes College was asked to reflect on a person who made a difference in his life during his first three years at Rhodes.  That person was Professor Cappellato.  He had traveled with her to Namibia this year to conduct research, taken classes on environmental science with her, and confided in her with matters that went beyond biology. 

Rosanna’s life, the force of energy that she brought to her teaching, her engagement in Memphis, and every relationship she forged, persists today.  Her energy lives on in my senior Bonner and the cadre of students she taught at Rhodes; it lives on in the arboretum she worked to establish at the College, and in the animals and trees and critters and plants that will continue to thrive as a result of the sustainable practices Rosanna taught. 

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed.

Some of my friends had babies in the past year or so: Alma and Ethan, Luka and Ramona.  These little ones will grow and develop as their parents and teachers and friends invest energy in them.  They’ll be leaders and brothers and bosses and maybe one day, parents and grandparents. 

Memphis is teeming with such transformed energy these days.  Old school systems being made new; old mentalities giving way to new realities. 

We’re even turning an old car bridge into a new bike bridge. 

Even old labels are fading…like Marty McFly and his cousins in that Polaroid from Back to the Future, the worst city for bikes is now the most improved.  A decaying southern backwater now has an innovation team at City Hall.

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed…rather, it can only change forms. 

I think a lot about the past.  Though I was trained this way, I have a seemingly insatiable and inexplicable curiosity about things that happened way back when.  And usually when I think about the past I think about Memphis, this wholly southern American city built by cotton.

In 19th century America, cotton – of course – meant slavery.  Sure, Memphis was a regional distributor for hardwoods, too, handling more than 500 million feet of hardwood each year at the turn of the 20th century.  But the economy of this place was built on cotton: Memphis remained one of the largest inland cotton markets in the world by 1900, handling more than 1 million bales (500 million pounds) of cotton a year.  As an urban island in an agrarian sea, Memphis made its way as a distribution center for these rural wares - which were then shipped to homes and factories across the western world.  And though the practice of owning slaves was made illegal by the thirteenth amendment in 1865, sharecropping continued to make use of black labor in the late 19th and early 20th century, a system that kept African Americans tied to the land and greatly resembled its not so distant cousin, slavery.  

At the turn of the 20th century, Memphis was a city that was quite literally struggling to survive.  The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 pushed the city to the brink of extinction: nearly two thirds of Memphis’ population was killed or fled during that epidemic in the spring and summer of 1878, and Memphis lost its city charter.  In 1893 the city regained its municipal status, surviving in part because of the heroic Memphis Martyrs, those who stayed behind to tend the sick and dying - often paying with their lives.   

The people who moved back to Memphis near the turn of the 20th century were not the Irish and German immigrants who had settled here before the plague; rather, many were poor anglo farmers and black sharecroppers seeking a better life in an emerging southern city.  

Among these immigrants was a man named Edward Hull Crump, a saddle boy from Holly Springs, Mississippi who moved to Memphis at 19 years old and got his first job with – of course – a cotton company.  Crump would effectively rule Memphis with patronage politics throughout the first half of the 20th century. 

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the notion of “separate but equal” institutions for blacks and whites, the legal architecture created in 1896 that led to the establishment and enforcement of Jim Crow segregation throughout the American south, was unconstitutional.  On October 16, 1954, just five months later, E.H. Crump would pass from this world with a heart ailment at the age of eighty.

Within a closed system, energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Rather, it can only change forms.       

Crump tacitly allowed Lieutenant George W. Lee, Robert Church, Jr. and Dr. J.E. Walker to register thousands of African American Memphians to vote in the inter-war period, a time during which African Americans across the south were routinely killed for attempting to register to vote.  

Memphis’ black political power base has strong roots in the early 20th century, and this base of power would grow during and after the modern civil rights era.  The Memphis NAACP branch would be named the best in nation by 1966, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would travel to Memphis to ally with striking sanitation workers during his final campaign in the winter of 1968.  Rev. King’s death in Memphis, as perhaps the most influential American in the 20th century, reshaped the city’s future.

When I came home to Memphis two and a half years ago, I'd – literally – just completed a year-long journey around the globe.  Memphis was known for many things in 2010; long labeled a poor city, Memphis was labeled a dumb city, an ugly city, a dirty city, and a bad city for biking.  The worst city in the nation for biking, in fact.  

When I arrived in Memphis in July of 2010, I believed that within a couple of years we might  become the best city for biking in the American South.  Beyond bikes, I thought that making simple changes to our roads might lead to a new civic reality for Memphis.  Working from this premise led me to new friendships – Kerry, Wesley, Elizabeth and Matt – and it served to strengthen old ones: Kyle, Marvin, John Paul and Sarah.   

Two and half years later, on December 27, 2012, The Memphis Commercial Appeal called 2012 “The Year of the Bicycle.”  The paper cited the bicycle as a primary driver in changing Memphis’ culture, and the recognition followed Memphis designation as the most improved city for bicycling in the nation.   Bikes Belong, seeing the possibilities in this southern town, invited Memphis to participate with six other cities in developing European style protected bike lanes in the United States. 

The City of Memphis received a $15 million grant to complete a bike and pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi River, and Germantown connected the Wolf River Greenway in eastern Shelby County to Memphis – a 1 mile stretch of pavement that connected two municipalities and more than 30 miles of protected bike paths in our region. 

Just two days after The Commercial Appeal’s “Year of the Bike” article, the New York Times ran an article about Memphis.  It wasn’t about a federal take over of Shelby County’s juvenile court system; it wasn’t about the Memphis and Shelby County School merger.  It wasn’t about an increase in obesity or the number of food deserts in Memphis. 

Instead, the New York Times wrote “Sprawling Memphis Aims to Be a Friendlier Place for Bicycles.” 

Energy is neither created nor destroyed. 


The week before Christmas, my closest friends in the world traveled back to the Bluff City to visit.  They live in Seattle and Nashville, Cincinnati and San Francisco, and before they left Memphis in 2009 we rode bikes every Thursday night – regardless of the weather.  A flask tucked into a back jean pocket made those 25-degree rides all the more exhilarating.

Each of my amigos told me how much Memphis had changed since they left four years ago. As with the national economy, 2008 – 2009 was a turning point in Memphis: we elected an amazing new Mayor – A C Wharton, but nearly a dozen of my friends uprooted and moved to new jobs or new schools.  I left the city to begin a year of travel.  But this year, when many of them visited my home in midtown Memphis, they remarked “If I could do what I do in Memphis, I’d probably live here.”


The Greek word Metanoia is used in the New Testament to signify the enigmatic process of repentance.  More precisely, the greek word meta can mean “after” of beyond, while the noun nous means “mind” or “understanding.” Metanoia, then, can imply that one has a new mind or a new mentality.  As my friend and mentor Cheryl Cornish describes the process of metanoia, it can be used to capture the notion that one is seeing with new eyes – a confrontation of old realities by new realities that fundamentally alters one's perception of the world. 

2012, its loss and its joy, has showed me how old energies are taking new forms.  Memphis is growing and changing right before our eyes, and its influencing both the way Memphians and people living outside of Memphis see this place.  It’s igniting possibilities, influencing regeneration, and changing the deep well of energy in this place.  In short, 2012 has provided us with a new mind.

Strange as it may sound to say so, thankfully, we cannot escape our past.  Everything that has happened here remains present in a very real, physical way.  And the profound amount of energy in this place – energy that was oft channeled into misery and despair – has immense possibility in our new age.  As Memphians, we serve as the instruments of transformation for these historical forces, for this old energy seeking new forms. 

So here's to you, Memphis, for a great 2012.  And to an even better 2013.