From the Editor
photograph by Artdirection | Dreamstime
In a slack-jawed dumb piece for Gawker in October, Drew Magary wondered, “The Most Racist City in America: Memphis?” The item is part of a series where Magary, giving a below-minimum of effort, drums up hits for the website as he ostensibly tries to call out bad behavior. It’s so Gawker. I’ve actually liked Magary’s writing on occasion, and I’m sure there have been stories like this I haven’t taken offense to because they concerned some city other than my own.
But this isn’t the moment where I defend Memphis from this kind of yellow journalism, in part because a response to that dreck isn’t worth the effort and in part because there really are problems in Memphis — like everywhere else on the planet where humans happen to live. The real reason, though, is because the story actually throws into relief something that’s been bothering me a long time.
What do visitors see when they come to Memphis? Apart from the wonderful museums, the life on Beale Street, and the undeniable soul the city has in its streets, what else do visitors see?
Depending upon where they visit, they might come across significant statues of noted slavery-enforcers Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest or walk through Confederate Park or Jefferson Davis Park occupying prime real estate downtown. Discussing this on Twitter once, someone (my apologies for not remembering whose thought this was) noted that even Ramesses II, who has a giant statue now located at the University of Memphis, was a famous slaveholder. That’s kind of funny.
What visitors don’t see is a public statue of Martin Luther King Jr., and I wonder why not. Washington, D.C., finally put a memorial up in 2011, and it’s time Memphis does the same.
I’m not necessarily suggesting Memphis take down the Davis statue or relocate Forrest to a cemetery. Such an effort would kick up considerable controversy and distract from the real problem: Memphis is by default celebrating the repugnant beliefs and behaviors of a certain time in our history because we’re not providing counter evidence that we’ve moved past it meaningfully or are aware of how wrong many of our forebears were. We have the private National Civil Rights Museum, but where’s our public acknowledgement of King’s time in our city or the civil rights movement’s importance to our history?
Symbols matter. If they didn’t, then there wouldn’t be resistance from some quarters whenever someone tries to take a Confederate flag down in some courthouse or another in the South, or when someone raises the specter of moving Forrest.
In October, David Stewart of Utah was kayaking down the Mississippi River and had his boat and gear stolen while stopping over in Memphis. Mayor A C Wharton wrote on Facebook, “We are terribly sorry that this happened to [Stewart], and we are more sorry when events like this reflect poorly upon our great city.”
Wharton recognized that this was a symbolic blow to the city greater than the value of Stewart’s pilfered property, and it underscored why Wharton, many concerned citizens, and businesses like Outdoors Inc. donated money and even a kayak to Stewart. No one wanted that negative connotation of Memphis to linger in the victim’s mind or in the PR ether.
Symbols matter because they have a tangible substance. Memphians responded in beautiful fashion to Stewart’s plight, but how much more significant would it be to finally get around to paying our proper respects to King’s sacrifice in the city?
Otherwise, the slaveholders in statuary will continue to tell our story.