MEMPHIS — Swin Cash, a woman I’ve always admired and liked from afar, physically reached out Sunday afternoon. I needed her. I needed someone, for I was no longer functioning.
I was standing on the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.
I was sobbing.
Powerful image of @daldridgetnt today at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. He's been to balcony of the Lorraine Motel before but anyone who has visited the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated knows it's impossible not to be moved (via Jim Weber) pic.twitter.com/yz2hOmBplJ
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) January 15, 2018
I had taken the tour at the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) before, and walked past rooms 306 and 307 at the Lorraine Motel, what’s left of it, anyway, that part of the motel having been preserved by the museum that was built around it in 1991, a jarring conclusion to the tour. What preceded was moving, but mostly known to anyone who has spent any time reading up or studying the Civil Rights movement, the names and events coming all at once: Parks and Faubus; Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman; Leeb, Evers and Connor; Wells and Hamer and Marshall and Eckford. Montgomery. Selma. Lunch Counters. Freedom Summer.
But the tour ends by walking past Rooms 307 and 306 of the Lorraine — the actual rooms, 306 being where King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy roomed together on April 3, 1968. The bedspreads, the plates, the cigarette butts — all preserved from that day, frozen for all time, the rooms a shrine-cum-mausoleum of sorts.
But I had not been to the museum in many years, and when I had gone on the tour before, the balcony was closed. In 2012, the museum decided to open the balcony to tourgoers. Thus, I was surprised Sunday when a worker at the museum opened the door to the balcony — the balcony.
It is a small, narrow balcony. There were only a few of us out there, and it was claustrophobic. Such were the accommodations available for black folks in the ‘60s, and King had stayed at the Lorraine many times between 1966 and 1968. You take three steps onto the balcony, and you are … there. You are standing where King stood when he spoke to Ben Branch, a musician he knew, who was standing beneath King and his coterie in the courtyard. The group was about to go to the home of Rev. Billy Kyles for dinner.
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ tonight in the meeting,” King asked Branch. “Play it real pretty.”
Seconds later, a rifle shot rang out. You look up. You see where the tour guide says the FBI believes the shot came from — a window on the top floor of a boarding house just across from the motel. The window is approximately 207 feet from the balcony. It’s not far, not far at all. And you can now understand the damage that one bullet can do fired from so near its target — King, who stood where I was standing when the .30-06 caliber rifle struck him in the neck, tore through his jaw, severed his spine and lodged in his shoulder.
I began to cry.
The museum has preserved one square piece of the original concrete from the balcony that was there in 1968. That square once was stained with King’s blood after the shooting; the square has been cleaned and returned, a gravestone with no name on it, its horrible witness to history having changed the world.
I began sobbing.
And Cash, one of the greatest basketball players ever, and as nice a person as she was great on the court, and who had her infant son in her arms most of the tour, reached out and put her hand on my shoulder. She said nothing.
The dichotomy between the simplicity of what was preserved of April 3 and 4, 1968, in Rooms 306 and 307 of the Lorraine Motel, and the outsized status and stature of the people who toured the museum in 2018 — almost all people of color — was jarring. King came to Memphis to fight for economic improvements for poor people, as part of his nationwide Poor People’s Campaign, the last movement he would head.
The people on the tour Sunday, former NBA and WNBA stars, assorted Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizziles, the Commissioner of the NBA and the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, me — all of us are doing ridiculously well financially compared to almost any other person who’s ever lived. The African-American players of the NBA, 300 to 340 or so, are likely the greatest single collection of black wealth and millionaires on earth.
This is our opening night, Christmas Day, all wrapped up into one when it comes to the importance of the game to our organization.”
Memphis Grizzlies President Jason Wexler
What King fought for and died for seems far removed from so many who star in the NBA, who move tens of millions of dollars worth of shoes and sodas and other products, whose faces are recognized around the world. But, of course, that was the whole point of the civil rights movement — to give black people the ability to rise or fall on their own abilities and talents, and to make the faces of black people something not to be feared or ordered about, but respected and admired.
But we were all here, in Memphis, to help commemorate King’s birthday this morning, and to mark the beginning of events in Memphis marking the 50 years that have passed since the assassination. (“Anniversary” does not seem appropriate here.) We were here because the Grizzlies play here every January 15th, the game only a part of days of events and symposiums throughout the city that celebrate King’s life and look to find modern meaning in his legacy.
“This is our opening night, Christmas Day, all wrapped up into one when it comes to the importance of the game to our organization,” Grizzlies President Jason Wexler said Saturday.
The Grizzlies have long understood that they must do more than just roll basketballs out on King’s birthday.
They have helped create a local charter school — Grizzlies Prep — for 5th through 8th grade boys, primarily in low-income neighborhoods and in communities of color. They’ve invested millions of dollars into local mentoring programs. Grizzlies guard Mike Conley pledged $1 million last year toward the Grizzlies’ TEAM Mentor Program. Their efforts in the city made them a finalist last year — the only NBA team chosen — for the Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year Award.
Former Coach David Fizdale — who publicly advocated for the removal of statues of Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederacy President Jefferson Davis from local parks (both were removed last month) — worked with local farms that taught people to grow healthier, locally-grown foods to help reduce the obesity numbers in the city.
For years, before their MLK Day game, the team has sponsored a civil rights panel discussion, now officially called the Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium, in honor of the first black player to play in an NBA game (full disclosure: I’ve hosted it several times) at FedEx Forum. The team has honored former players like Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar over the years who have made significant contributions off the court toward improving the lives of people of color.
This year’s 16th Celebration Game will again feature the annual Sports Legacy Award presentation and symposium, which will honor Hall of Famer James Worthy, former players Sam Perkins and Cash, and former player and Memphis native Penny Hardaway.
And in Monday’s game, the Grizzlies will debut their City Edition uniforms, which come with a wonderful and historic touch: the “MEMPHIS” font on the front of their jerseys is the same font that was used for the iconic “I AM A MAN” posters and placards that sanitation workers in the city used after they went on strike in the spring of 1968 — the event that brought Dr. King to Memphis in his last days.
“We’re acutely aware of our history in this city,” Wexler said. “FedEx Forum, to me, is the greatest address in sports. Our address is 191 Beale Street, and our boundaries are Beale Street (where the blues took hold as an iconic American music institution), B.B. King Boulevard, Martin Luther King Avenue and Church park, named for Robert Church, who was the first African-American millionaire, post-Civil War. And across the street from us is Clayborn Temple.”
Clayborn Temple is where the sanitation workers produced and handed out the I AM A MAN placards.
Wexler, John Pugliese, the team’s vice president of marketing, communications and broadcast, and Director of Creative Services David Thompson worked with Nike over the last year-plus on the uniform design. (Nike, which designed every team’s City Edition uniforms, also has a large presence in Memphis; its $300 million North American Logistics Campus here is the largest single entity for the company outside Nike’s home state of Oregon.) They consulted with the NCRM.
“This was not a moment where you wanted splashes of color and something that stood out,” Wexler said. “It had to be dignified and respectful of the moment. These great black and white photos, people marching in their suits … it just all came together. You’re not going to stick a neon color on something like that. That’s not what this moment is about.”
But what is it about?
NBA players engage in wonderful acts of philanthropy, service and dialogue with the community in every NBA city. No sentient person doubts LeBron James’ sincerity in pledging college scholarships for every public school kid in his native Akron, Ohio, through a partnership with the University of Akron. No one would argue that DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t genuine when he brought cops and citizens of Sacramento and Birmingham together in separate events over the last year.
But do they work in the spirit of what King preached?
“Of course, the struggles that the activist athletes of today are waging is in the truest and most profound spirit and vision of Dr. King — struggle founded upon a concern over injustice perpetrated against the vulnerable and voiceless, a courageous commitment to address and confront that injustice boldly, nonviolently, and uncompromisingly, and a willingness to sacrifice their fortunes, risk their careers and (if the death threats so many of them have received are factored in) their very lives in their pursuit of ‘that more Perfect Union,’ ” said Dr. Harry Edwards, the prominent sociologist and civil rights advocate, via e-mail.
“Were Dr. M.L. King here in body with us today, it would be my guess that he would be ‘taking a knee with (Colin) Kaepernick, raising a fist with Malcolm Jenkins, taking a seat with Marshawn Lynch, or simply saying AMEN! to the remarks of LeBron, D-Wade, CP3, and Carmelo at the ESPYs a couple of years back,” Edwards wrote.
Yet despite the presence of a mammoth corporation like FedEx, which is headquartered here, and other huge companies like Auto Zone, International Paper and ServiceMaster, Memphis, and especially its black citizens, remain poor — ear-splittingly poor.
The “Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet” for 2017, published last September by the University of Memphis, ticked off the numbers: the city’s poverty rate is 26.9 percent. Child poverty in the city is … 44.7 percent. The poverty rate for non-Hispanic African-Americans is 32.3 percent. Memphis is the poorest Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in the nation with more than a million people.
So, all the great work that the Grizzlies do in the community … what does it mean? Does it have impact? Does any of this have any impact? And is that too much to ask of any one NBA player, or team, or league, for that matter? These aren’t mathematicians and social scientists; these are guards and forwards and marketers. (And, lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers.)
Memphis thus strains under the dual one-two punch it gets, for its past and its present.
“There’s always this narrative that Memphis is still, like, staggering, really, under the shame of being the city where King was killed, even 50 years out,” said Wendi Thomas, a journalist and 2016 Neiman Fellow who launched MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, an ongoing nonprofit online reporting project highlighting the stark economic problems that remain in Memphis, and is supported by the National Civil Rights Museum in conjunction with the museum’s MLK50 commemoration.
“We’re in this constant process of atonement,” Thomas said. “I think part of the challenge becomes, to you, what part of King’s legacy are you trying to redeem? If it’s just the little black boys and little white boys holding hands part, I think the Grizzlies as an organization do a good job of bringing diverse groups of people together under the same roof. If you understand why King was in Memphis — which is about jobs and wages, underpaid public employees — then the question could be, do the Grizzlies even have a place in that, in that discussion? Because they’re a business. But I would argue that, yes they do, and moreover, so does any other business or entity that’s going to trot out a King quote on that day.”
Indeed, King’s pivot from demanding civil rights for African-Americans to fighting for economic justice is still, to this day, far less discussed and celebrated by most.
In 1966, King went to Chicago to fight against segregated housing, but also to demand an increase in the local minimum wage, to $2 an hour — in today’s dollars, $15.13 per hour — just exactly about what the “Fight for $15” movement is seeking across the country today.
And King did not fare as well and have the universal support for his economic fights than he did for civil rights; he famously said, after being hit in the head by a rock during a march in Marquette Park in August, 1966, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” The city’s notorious Mayor, Richard J. Daley, placated King, but never followed through on the promises he made the minister while King was there.
Nonetheless, King came to Memphis after sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were killed on Feb. 1, 1968, when a malfunctioning garbage truck shorted out, starting the truck’s compactor while the men were on the back of the truck. They couldn’t escape in time and were crushed inside.
Soon after their deaths, on Feb. 12, 1968, 1,300 of Memphis’s sanitation workers went on strike, demanding not only improved working conditions (the “wiener barrel” trucks like the one that malfunctioned were horribly outdated and often flipped over as well), but modern-day financial amenities. They had “no benefits, no pension, no overtime, no grievance procedure, no insurance, no uniforms” … .
King had announced in December, 1967, that he was starting a nationwide moment — a “Poor People’s Campaign” — to highlight the stark poverty that still roiled large swaths of cities and rural areas around the country. The campaign demanded $30 billion in annual federal money to combat poverty, construction of 500,000 low-cost homes and Congressional backing for a full employment, guaranteed wage bill. Plans were made for a second March on Washington, similar to the seminal one in 1963, the site of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which would feature the construction of a shanty town on the grounds of the National Mall where protestors would remain until the proposed bills were passed into law.
At the invitation of his longtime friend, the Rev. James Lawson, who had been helping lead the protests in Memphis, King came to the city in March to offer his public support for the striking workers. Police had shot mace into protesting crowds in late February; more than 100 people were arrested in early March. King arrived on March 18 and spoke to more than 10,000 people at the Mason Temple; he pledged to return later in the month and lead a march himself.
He came back on March 28 for the march, but a few rioters who broke windows as the march went down Beale Street made finishing the march peacefully impossible. At the urging of fellow clergy, who feared for his safety, King left the march before police descended on the protestors. One teenager, thought to be looting, was shot and killed by police, and hundreds of people were arrested. It was one of the first times a march led by King had fallen into violence, in part, by his own protestors. He had prior commitments out of town in the next days, but vowed he would again return to Memphis to lead another march.
He returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, and checked into Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.
Speaking again at Mason Temple, King delivered the last speech of his life. He was not feeling well, yet roused himself, as ever, to bring his crowd to its feet. The ending of the speech, of course, is what almost everyone remembers; almost prophetically, King said that while he’d like to live a long life — “longevity has its place,” he said — what happened to his physical body no longer mattered to him.
“I just want to do God’s will,” he said. “And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen … the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land! So I’m happy tonight — I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Yet the bulk of King’s speech was not about prophecy, but policy.
“The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers,” he said earlier in the speech — which ran more than 40 minutes, not three. “Now we’ve got to keep attention on that … we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here to say to you that you’re not treating His children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment where God’s children are concerned. Now if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
King called for Memphis’ black citizens not to buy Coca-Cola, or Sealtest Milk. He asked they boycott not one, but two bread companies — Wonder Bread and Hart’s Bread.
“We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies,” King said, “and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor (Henry) Loeb to do what is right.”
He told Memphis’ black population to take its money out of white banks and to patronize Tri-State Bank, a black-owned bank founded in 1946; to do business with black insurance companies; to “begin the process of building a greater economic base, and at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts,” King said.
So, where does that leave Memphis, and the people who live and work here now?
“I think today, to honor King, you’ve got to look at what you pay your workers,” Thomas said. “Don’t put a King quote up on the screen, on the JumboTron — that new, beautiful JumboTron — but your workers are making $9 an hour, talking about, get your beer here. Then, you’re just playing. It feels like you’re mocking what King stood for. And that bothers me, as somebody who started this non-profit journalism project, who raised a lot of money so we can make sure we can pay our workers at least $15 an hour, all our contributors. Is it this team’s job to lead that conversation? I’m not sure. But I know that’s where Coach Fizdale was headed.”
Politically, at least, there have been stirrings in the city among the city’s black residents, with the statue removal serving as a catalyst.
“The woman who really led the ‘Take ‘Em Down’ movement, Tami Sawyer, she’s also running for office (Shelby County Commission),” Thomas said. “It seems like every other day, I see on Facebook, some announcement, some young black person, who’s announced that they’re running for a local office in Memphis. And what I think it’s doing is, it’s creating this new wave of young black people who think they can change their world, too. And that, to me, is exciting.”
It is beyond any one player, no matter how famous or rich; beyond any one league, no matter how popular or viewed. Yet so many come here to Memphis, this year, to vow that they have not forgotten who came before, and to, as John Wesley said,
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
“Will these activist athletes words and deeds ‘make a difference?,’ ” Edwards asked. “Anytime people stand up based upon a principled commitment to freedom and justice, THAT IS THE IMPACT! When the words and actions of activist athletes precipitate comments from presidents, imitation across the spectrum of the sports hierarchy from Pop Warner football to women’s soccer, when there are entire departments of public defenders (the Alameda Co. Office) go public with a group photo taking a knee, when Congressmen and women are taking a knee on the floor of the US Congress, when 2-year old begs to wear his Kaepernick jersey so that he can take a knee — has the athlete activist movement had an impact ? Yes — I’d say so! The question is not IF, but HOW MUCH; and that story is still evolving.”
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