Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Lorraine Motel
Memphis, 2004
Lori's Pic Collection

"Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity it has dignity and it has worth.

From MLK's speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN,

March 18,1968

While I was much too young (preschool age) to remember most of the details surrounding the event, I was living in Memphis during the Sanitation Workers' Strike of 1968. I want to say I remember hearing the now famous "Mountaintop Speech" on the radio the night before King was gunned down. For years, I've been able to conjure an all too vivid of image of myself as a little girl, listening to the rise and fall of that distinctive voice as I stared up at the ceiling in the darkened back bedroom of my grandparents' North Memphis home . . . Though, I must admit, the memory could very well be a false one that willed itself into creation over time.

But there is one thing I do remember with regards to that sad and brutal event--a memory equal in intensity only to the one I've held since I was three and the middle finger of my right hand was accidentally crushed in the unexpected slam of a car door.

On the day of MLK's funeral, rather than make herself comfortable on any of the available den furniture or even the floor, my mother choose to squeeze herself into my little red rocking chair. Positioned there, in front of our 16-inch black and white TV set, she sat and rocked with tears streaming down her face as she watched the slain civil rights leader's home-going. Barring the onset of Alzheimers, that image of my weeping mother is one I will surely carry with me to my own grave. As an adult, the image permits me to not only look back and see "the big picture" but feel it on a more emotional and personal level as well.

"If you bend your back, people can ride it. But if stand up straight, people can't ride your back. And that's what we did. We stood up straight."

Taylor Rodgers, an organizer with Local 1733 AFSCME & a participant in the Sanitation Workers' Stike of 1968

Due to my father's military career, most of my early years were spent moving in and out of Memphis. Shortly upon my return to the city in the early 80's, a friend I'd met at college (LeMoyne-Owen) drove me by the Lorraine Motel late one night. This was in the days just prior to the motel's subsequent resurrection as The National Civil Rights Museum, when it still looked like the run-down and abandoned building that it was . . . a place more befitting the likes of pimps and their two-bit hookers than a King and his humble entourage. Anyway, my friend talked about his memories of the '68 strike, when, if I'm not mistaken, he couldn't have been more than 9 or 10 years old. He said he'd never forget the sight of tanks rolling past his house. To him, it looked like something out of a movie. He talked about the confusion and outrage he felt at the city father's decision to send armored vehicles into his peaceful, working-class Black neighborhood in the hours/days after King's death.

My friend YN (who teaches at the small liberal arts college in Atlanta I mentioned in a previous post), was also living in Memphis during the Sanitation Workers' Strike of 1968. She was a preteen when she stumbled upon the "I AM A MAN" sign her father, a self-employed landscaper, had tucked away in a closet. I can still remember the sense of pride and awe I felt, as a 20-some year old, when my friend introduced me to her father and afforded me the opportunity to shake his hand.

It's all right to talk bout the new Jerusalem, but one day God's preacher must talk about the "new' New York, the "new" Atlanta, the "new" Philiadelphia, the "new" Los Angeles, the "new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do."
from MLK's "Mountaintop" Speech
at Mason Temple, in Memphis, TN
April 3, 1968

Not too long ago, a writer, whose work I admire, wrote a piece that implied Memphis harbors some sort of "collective guilt" over the death of MLK. As one born and nurtured in the Bluff City, not only do I respectfully disagree, but I must add, that even to suggest such is to exhibit an unfamilarity with either the old or the prevailing Black Memphis "mindset" (LOL). We simply aren't those kind of people. So, don't let the masks or the Hollywood distortions (via Craig Brewer's twisted lens or 3-6 Mafia's ignorant madness) fool you.

The truth is, we harbor about as much "collective guilt" over Martin's death as the African American residents of New Orleans do over the breeching of the levies. And why should we? The tragedy that occured in Memphis on April 4, 1968 was not of our making and could have just as easily happened in any other dark, neglected, impoverished corner of these United States.

The truth is, like so many others, I am but one generation removed from Black folks who farmed, slaughtered hogs, picked cotton, worked in the mills, toiled on the river . . . Southern born men and women of color, who after years of contributing to the wealth of this nation with their hands and their backs, like their mothers and fathers before them, stood their ground and said, "Not me boss. I ain't running . . . not North or nowhere else. I earned this here piece of the Delta. Done paid for it ten times over already with my blood and my sweat and my tears, same as all the kin who come before me . . ."

And while we certainly do salute Martin for coming to Memphis and sacrificing his life in the Struggle, I'm sorry, but guilt over his death is not even something we ought to feel. Righteous indignation, perhaps. But never guilt.

Recently, I heard a truly gifted poet/spoken word artist from New Orleans, a woman by the name of Sunni Patterson. Oh, this sister is fierce! Near the end of her piece, "We Made It" (check out the clip) she spins a bit of truth about how some of us have come to view death.

" . . . Death don't come in vain

Not for us to remain in enslaved

Or our spirits to remain in cages

It comes so we might be courageous

To fulfill our obligations to our God and all creation

And stand here in determination

Able to look Death in the face and say

We made it . . . We made it . . . We made it . . ."

from "We Made It" by Sunni Patterson New Orleans poet/spoken word artist

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