#MLK50: No Neat Bow
I spent yesterday at two different events. One was a service at Calvary Episcopal Church to dedicate a new marker on the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave market. The old marker referred to Forrest’s time in Memphis where his “business enterprises made him wealthy.” The old marker did not identify Forrest’s business as human trafficking—selling men, women, children, and babies.
The old marker went up one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine. The old marker was proud of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s time in Memphis, how wealthy the city had made him. The marker commemorated a fine, upstanding, honored Memphian . . . who specialized in selling slaves smuggled into this country illegally. So in a way, the marker did tell the truth: 100 years after all moral people had repudiated slavery, white Memphis wanted to honor a man who sold Black folk.
The service and unveiling of the new marker was extremely emotional. The emotion became palpable, causing all in the sanctuary to rise, when the names of many people sold at the site were read aloud. Calvary is a predominately white church. Both Black and white Memphians attended the service. The primary impact—in my opinion—was white people acknowledging denied truths, and Black people hearing them do it.
The afternoon I spent at the National Civil Rights Museum. When I walked into the courtyard, I expected to see a racially mixed crowd like the one I’d just left at the church. The NCRM crowd was almost all Black. I was shocked. Ignorant as always, it simply hadn’t dawned on me that white faces would be missing from those gathered at the NCRM. After all, I had set our travel schedule around being in Memphis on the anniversary. I couldn’t imagine not being at the NCRM on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.
I believe later in the day—when the Reverend Al Green performed, for example—the crowds were more mixed; I assume the same for the ticketed events with speakers and panels. But that afternoon, Black families had taken off work to be at the Museum. Parents and kids were sitting on bleachers and curbs and makeshift perches simply to be there. The feel of the gathering was one of sacred presence. Witnessing. Being with others to remember together.
When I saw the solemn gathering, I felt a wash of shame, knocked down a notch or two for my attitude—I’m going to the MLK50 celebration! Yesterday, I posted a quote from Dr. King’s last book my MLK50 posts have been based on, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The quote said white folks will never understand what it means to be Black in America. The quiet being-present of the Black families at the NCRM brought this home to me.
No matter how much I admire Dr. King, it’s different for me, and it always will be. For those gathered, this isn’t a “cause.” It is life.
Calvary Episcopal Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr., MLK, MLK50, Where do We Go from Here?
Thank you for sharing the your reflections on MLK and Memphis this week. Powerful.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Thanks, Joanne. It has been a week here in town. e