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Divided Memphis: How’s that working for you?

March 12, 2012

Here’s a sample of the ways Eve and I have seen our hometown depicted in the national news over the past six months we’ve been back in Memphis:

▪ Ranked #1 in poverty among U.S. cities (U.S. Census)

▪ Ranked #2 in “America’s Most Dangerous Cities (down from #1 in 2010) (Forbes)

▪ “Merger of Memphis and County Schools Revives Race and Class Challenges” (NY Times)

▪ “20 Cities You Don’t Want to Live In – Yet” (CNBC)

▪ Ranked #3 in “Ten Worst Cities to Find a Job” (Careercast.com)

▪ Worst City for Women (Self Magazine)

This is just a partial list, mind you, of the dubious honors our favorite River City has garnered since September 2011.

Of course, not all the news about Memphis is bad.  We are deeply encouraged and excited about the passion, zeal, creativity, and sheer doggedness we see among a host of  Greater Memphians who believe in the city and are committed to its turnaround. That’s the group we came here to be a part of, and so far, we’ve received a warm welcome.

Memphis’ Achilles heel has long been its racial division.  Even in its long-past glory days, Memphis wasn’t a truly great city unless you were white.  The Boss Crump political era planted toxic seeds that sprouted in later mayoral administrations where racism was more explicit. Then came the upheaval of the civil rights movement, climaxing in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the open air of a downtown motel balcony. That moment branded Memphis as an “international symbol of racial strife,” according to University of Memphis professor Daniel Kiel, quoted in a Feb. 2, 2011 WKNO interview. Our legacy as the location of Dr. King’s murder? A city-wide syndrome of black anger, white shame, and mutual distrust that persists even today, creating a funk of municipal self-reproach.

In 1973, Federal court-ordered busing of school students to achieve racial balance kept Memphis’ racial divide in the national spotlight. Decades of busing resulted in massive white flight from city schools and city boundaries and deprived all of our children from the benefit of neighborhood schools. Busing — and the fight against it — only increased our city’s polarization.

Photo Credit: Barney Sellers, Commercial Appeal

Eve and I were pleasantly surprised when we moved back last year to find that black/white relations in Memphis are not nearly as wretched as when we both left in the 1970’s. Mid-Southerners who grew up with Sesame Street don’t see people of unlike color as “Other” the way prior, highly segregated generations did (though it would be unfair to give Sesame Street all the credit). It’s a very positive and hopeful sign that real change can happen.

At least, that’s what we were telling ourselves when local shock jock Thaddeus Matthews thrust Memphis into the national spotlight again a few weeks ago. As most Memphians are now aware, Matthews subjected Congressional candidate Charlotte Bergmann, a conservative black Republican, to a tirade of insults and epithets when she appeared as a guest on his live radio show. Ms. Bergmann’s sin? Her opinions differ from what Matthews considers to be the only acceptable views of a member of the black community. Ms. Bergmann tolerated the verbal abuse with dignity and grace, finally excusing herself to exit the show–which enflamed her sputtering host even more.

A video of the interview went viral on YouTube. The story was picked up by Fox News, Glenn Beck’s news website The Blaze, and a host of major conservative blogs. Characteristically, local news outlets ignored it until national notoriety again lathered shame on Memphis.

Really, Memphis? Doesn’t anyone here have the spine (more colorful metaphor resisted) to acknowledge egregious acts of racism committed by idiots of any color? Is this how we treat Congressional candidates? Or any African-American Memphian who doesn’t toe the old Boss Crump yella dog Democrat line?

The best treatment we’ve seen of this shocking and reprehensible incident came from AlfonZo Rachel of Pajamas Media. If you aren’t familiar with the inimitable “Zo,” treat yourself now. He is an articulate, street-smart, wickedly funny, black conservative who takes no prisoners in his video monologues. Click on the link:

Thaddeus Matthews, American Bigot: Racism Is Alive and Well in Memphis

The end of the story is that Thaddeus Matthews no longer has a voice on FCC-regulated air waves in the Mid-South. The owner of the transmitter pulled the plug, then converted the station to a country music format. But Matthews is still around, now on the internet: doing his thing, dividing his own African-American community, keeping racial tension alive in Memphis, and making his home city look hopelessly backward.

Pray for Memphis.

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