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Reflections on a Black and White Memphis

April 24, 2014

I am old enough to remember  a black and white America. In my childhood, televisions and movies were black and white. The stories they told had moral values that were black and white. Everyone, children and adults, read the newspapers, chronicles of American life printed in  black and white (and read all over, per  the riddle every child could tell).


Growing up in Memphis was also about black and white. Life was a tale of two cities. White people lived in white neighborhoods, black people in black neighborhoods.  Schools, shops, churches, bus seating and radio stations divided black and white. Water fountains and swimming pools divided black and white. Poverty and middle class divided black and white. For the most part, Memphis children, white and black, lived in separate bubbles. We generally thought whatever our parents and elders thought about the two different worlds and why they existed. We believed what we were told about the personalities, peculiarities and peccadilloes  of those Other people, with whom most of us children had little, if any, interaction.

The decade of the 1960’s changed everything – for Memphis, for America. Planet Earth rocked on its axis, and institutions tottered and toppled. Rules were broken, beliefs shaken. Leaders were raised up, revered, then assassinated. Scales fell from many eyes.

The baby boom generation was like a fat pig in the demographic python. There were so many of us we could not be ignored. With  an intensity of passion, energy and idealism found only in the callow, we dared to think and live differently. Our rebellion took on many forms, from drug use to political activism. We made news, while trying to make things new. New is not always better.

Draft Objector

Memphis had been a white-dominated, conservative city with deep roots in segregated society. White adults feared integration of schools and souls. They railed against school busing; fled to the suburbs; and erected new, white-only, “Christian” schools. Memphis’ overt racism made national headlines.  For the most part, however, public school students both black and white adapted to integration, and seeds were planted for positive change.

But in April 1968, a gun was fired in downtown Memphis and our world exploded. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination was the event that changed Memphis forever. The sins of the man who pulled the trigger were visited on every white person in Memphis. We were accused by the world, and we knew guilt in our hearts.


I am persuaded that the vast majority of African Americans are unaware of the intolerable burden of white guilt. Though the race card is frequently played by those who are angry over some injustice, either real or imagined, guilt over past racism is far more prevalent than current prejudice against blacks. That shame has informed and infected white people –  and most acutely, white Southerners – for a half century.

Memphis has imploded since that shot heard around the world in 1968. We are no longer a confident and thriving city, a clean city, a city of good abode. Memphis is racked with crime, poverty, hopelessness, and despair; a city on the verge of moral and financial collapse. And despite a half century of racially conjoined living, working, governing, and playing, fear and anger still divide us.

Where have we gone wrong? Why can’t we get it right?

We see our local elected leaders engaged in foolish games of divide and conquer, pitting city against county, black against white, middle class against poor. Why can’t we raise up and elect more men and women of maturity, wisdom, and experience in working effectively with others for the common good?

crime sceneWe see failed public policies that were supposed to bring an end to poverty, joblessness,  poor education, teenaged pregnancies, and juvenile crime. We see thousands of not for profit organizations and churches reaching out, reaching out, reaching out every day to feed, clothe, house and support the needy. But the sins and suffering of Memphis keep swelling.

We have seen working people of all races retreat to the suburbs, as far away from the city limits as their jobs will allow them, creating middle class municipal bubbles where they can  forget they are still in Greater Memphis. We’ve seen hard-working, open-hearted, upwardly mobile citizens of all races move to Memphis and leave soon thereafter; unable or unwilling to live in a city so ruled by anger and distrust.

We know many Greater Memphians who have worked hard to make a difference. Some burned out and gave up, despairing after years of failed efforts to bring people together. Others fared st jude two boysbetter. They found common ground, then developed loyal friendships and mutually rewarding partnerships across races. But the latter are too few in number. This is a city of many thousand churches, charitable organizations, and interracial ministries. It is the home of  Stax, the Grizzlies, MIFA,  St. Jude and FedEx. A place where people cross barriers and shake hands, then make magic and music and medicine and miracles every day. We can do better than we are doing. We can be more than we are.

Memphis could be a city of light,  a city of shalom, a place of wholeness and peace where things are the way they are supposed to be. Yet much of Memphis continues to waste away as the majority of us sit and wonder how to fix such a mess.

Hope and change starts with us. With individuals. We are responsible for the business climate, neighborhood culture, and prosperity of our city. Us – not another federal program or Gates Foundation handout or glib politician.

What can we do?  What must we do?

1. Fix our public schools.

Kahlmus Eatman of Aspire Public Schools greeting first-day students and parents at Hanley Elementary School in 2013. Photo credit: Brandon Dill, Commercial Appeal

Meaningful school improvement starts with us – parents, grandparents, churches, teachers, coaches, and local business people who care enough to get involved. We will not succeed with billion-dollar programs  created by education activists who have never taught in a classroom and who think that children’s futures can be managed like production lines of widgets. We need local control and wise, strong, capable school board members who understand local circumstances and listen to their constituents. We have to start with the basics, like making sure that every student in third grade and above can read and write. Making sure that all  public high school graduates can communicate, calculate and follow instructions; that they are motivated to work hard and do their best. We can’t leap into a “World Class” educational system from where we are now; i.e., with only 4% of Memphis high school graduates able to perform in a college or work setting. We start with the basics.

2. Elect better leaders. 

Photo credit: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Photo credit: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

Memphis has deteriorated because the quality of our leadership has deteriorated. Memphis must raise up and elect high-quality leaders who will honestly and faithfully represent citizens of all races and socioeconomic groups; who will put the health and prosperity of the city above their own political ambitions and egos; who will have the courage to reform the current patronage system that allows waste, corruption, and mediocrity to sabotage our best laid plans. To do this, we must all be better-informed voters. That means taking the time to learn about issues and candidates, finding the truth amidst hype and propaganda, and cherishing the right to vote.

3. Bridge the racial divide.

Photo credit:  Karen Pulfer Focht, Commercial Appeal

Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, the legendary Memphis Horns. Photo credit: Karen Pulfer Focht, Commercial Appeal

No city at war with itself can survive. How many people do you know well whose cultural and/or economic background is vastly different from your own? Would you be at ease attending a church picnic or family get-together where no one looked remotely like you? Relationships of trust and regard start with finding common ground. All too often, middle class and wealthy Memphians attempt to help those in need by writing a check or participating in activities that make them feel good about themselves for being charitable. Too many white people seek to absolve their racial guilt in showy but superficial ways rather than intentionally forming friendships with  African Americans as brothers and sisters in humanity. (How often do you think black civil rights leaders of the 1960’s were invited to the Kennedy compound to sail and play tennis? And has anything changed among sniffy white liberal elites?) We must stop seeing people different from ourselves as Other (this I say as a guilty white Southerner who is still stumbling on the journey).

Making a Start

Memphis has always been a black and white city. My Memphis of the 1950’s was a privileged, prosperous, and safe haven. For a little boy or girl in Orange Mound or Binghamton,  not so much. I was too naive, protected and self-centered to recognize the poisonous legacy of slavery that was eating away the heart of the country and city I loved. It took me way too long to understand and acknowledge that, even as a child, my acceptance and indifference to the way things were then was an insidious  form of racism. After seeing and living in other places, and stretching the boundaries of my experience far beyond Shelby County, I began to grow on the inside.  Now, home again in Memphis after many years gone, I find myself back in a black and white city, wiser but sadder.

This time, I grieve. I grieve for all the time we’ve lost as a community, for the opportunities we are losing still. Yet even as I yearn and mourn, I am grateful to happen upon moments of hope, shared joy, and glimmers of understanding.

It all starts with finding common ground. In future posts, Back in River City will begin to highlight people, projects and organizations that are bringing people together in Memphis. Please help us identify these points of light and join us as we tell their stories.

Meanwhile, enjoy this perfect Memphis moment from the 1998 Sunset Symphony, where James Hyter sings his last performance after 21 years. (If you don’t love this, you’re not really a Memphian.)

[Email followers click here for video.]



Join the Conversation!

How does Memphis become a city of fellowship?

How do we push ourselves back from the Detroit-like precipice that threatens many American cities?

What people, organizations and projects do you know that are creating bonds of friendship in Memphis across racial lines?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.












2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2014 3:23 pm

    I have a disease that I have suffered from for quite some time. It is a latent malady that apparently I have had since birth, but the symptoms of which did not manifest themselves until about fifteen years ago, roughly coinciding with the beginning of my career as a teacher in the legacy Memphis City School system. It was at this time that I began to notice that I suffer from…White Male Syndrome (WMS).

    It is a curious illness. I had the disorder for all of my adult life, starting even in high school. I knew that I was different from others, but it was teaching in public schools that caused the infirmity to manifest itself in profound and life-changing ways. I have since learned that it is also genetic. My father must have been a carrier for it.

    The first class that I taught as a professional educator was 100% African-American. An inner-city school, these children were the first to help me understand my disease. The common street name for WMS is ‘racist,’ and they reminded me of it daily. I denied it at first, and even brought in my African-American principal to help dispel the notion that I was not what they were saying I was (after all, would a person with full-blown WMS choose to work for an African-American boss?). I knew little about the disease at the time, so I did not know that there is a certain blindness that comes with it. Ironically, the more one becomes personally aware of WMS, the blindness increases.

    This disease has affected my vision. I am unable at the current time to see the skin colors of my students. I confess that I therefore am forced to treat them as regular human beings, and not with all the cultural demands of their race, which is an admitted disservice. After all, they have acquired their expectations over a (short) lifetime of being in a racially divided city. I cannot hope to do justice to their upbringing, handicapped as I am.

    • April 25, 2014 7:25 pm

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Darrell! I’m pretty sure that WMS is a gender-specific strain of WPS (White Person Syndrome), and alas, there is no cure.

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