What Memphis Reminded Me

What Memphis Reminded Me

Yesterday brought back strong memories. I can still see the face of the television newscaster fighting back tears and announcing, “Dr. Martin Luther King is dead.” Just 10.5 miles from my home in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, April 4, 1968.

50 years later, I’m standing about 300 yards from the Lorraine Motel balcony where he was shot. Thousands of us have returned to that spot to remember that giant and that day. The speakers were amazing. Jesse Jackson, James Lawson, Sister Peace, William Barber and others walked us through the history of a civil rights movement that changed this nation. They pushed us toward the ballot box to continue the fight for change.

At 6:01 PM the bells began to toll and the crowd hushed. They recognized that at that very moment 50 years ago a shot rang out and King crumbled on the balcony. Moments later the mood changed as Al Green sang songs that lifted our spirits and launched us from that place, determined to keep the dream alive.

I announced that this week’s blog title would be, “ What Happened to My Hymns?” I’ll get to that next week. Being in that historic gathering yesterday in Memphis reminded me of a number of things. Some important. Some, not so much. Here are a few.

There is nothing quite like the Black Church

There was one thing that most of the civil rights leaders past and present had in common. They were children of the black church. Even the ceremony itself reminded me of the magic of that institution. At times like a lecture. At times like a revival.  The music, the preachers, the fraternities, the speeches, the emotion, community, the choirs. Then and now there’s nothing quite like it.

We don’t realize how good the Aeolians are!

Where did that come from? Well, I was listening to the national HBCU mass choir sing, “Beams of Heaven” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and it occurred to me that I was missing something.  What was it?  The Aeolians. The HBCU mass choir was fine and twice the size, but not even close!  It reminded me again why the Oakwood University Aeolians are the 2017 Choir of the World. I’m afraid we take them for granted.

The more things change, the more….they don’t! 

Dr. King was in Memphis in 1968 supporting city sanitation workers. They were underpaid, disrespected, and the targets of systematic racism. King died supporting workers. 50 years later, Memphis is 64% black but 88% of senior managers in the city are white. Those are plantation percentages. The problems of crime and poverty and unemployment plague the city, but the downtown area is a growing shrine to gentrification. There’s work to do.

Movements are messy, and leaders are flawed. 

King was no choir boy. The leaders of the civil rights movement- male and female- were a mixed bag of energy, ideas, courage, and cowardice.  They were deeply flawed, but like the early Christian church they turned their world upside down. If you’re looking for a perfect movement, you’ll be waiting.

Friends come in all colors 

The bells tolled at 6:01 pm. It was the most important moment of the rally yesterday. Ironically, the speaker at that time was not a black pastor or politician, but a white Roman Catholic priest, Michael Pflegar. He has been an important player in the black community for years in Chicago. He wasn’t a token, he earned his spot.

The crowd began to boo when the mayor of Memphis and governor of Tennessee-both white- began to speak.  On the surface it seemed like a racial statement. But the jeers turned immediately to cheers when congressman Steve Cohen followed them. He has been a warrior of a representative for the black community-and he is white. You might not want to identify the friends or enemies of a movement by the color of their skin.

Our ancestors did more with less 

I was struck by the fact that most of the “builders” on the platform were in their golden years. They were recognized for the colleges, businesses, fraternities, and service organizations they had sacrificed to build. I’m afraid that sacrifice is a profanity to many in my world. We usually worship in churches and study in universities that our parents and grandparents built at great sacrifice. Of course, there is the problem of debt and the declining dollar. But the greater problem is a black community that is at times all talk and no action.

The power for change is still the power of God 

To the natural eye, the answers to the problems in the black community are obvious: economic investment, quality education, voter registration, etc. Those are powerful and legitimate answers. But James Lawson and the senior statesmen of the movement reminded us yesterday, that while we are pursuing those legitimate resources, the real answer comes, “not by might, nor by power” but by God’s spirit and power. Sound silly? I’d rather do it the way King did it than the way the scoffers and complainers aren’t doing it!

So those are a few of my thoughts about King and the movement. What do you think?

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