In Memphis, the changing legacies of Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr.

Tennessee

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I didn’t know the two white men. And if they knew of me, it was only because I was the newest black reporter at the morning newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where Elvis Presley grew up and Martin Luther King Jr. died.

“Well,” one of the men said as I entered the men’s room, “if they are going to have a national holiday for him [Martin Luther King Jr.], they should have one for Elvis too.” The men looked stricken when I entered the room, as if hearing their conversation would cause me to judge them, the newspaper, the South …

I looked away.

I didn’t want to seem to judge or scorn them with my eyes. Besides, even as a struggling young reporter, I’d learned to look for meaning in people’s speech that went beyond the words they spoke. And in the man’s tone, I’d heard a reverence for the supposed “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and not disdain for the slain civil rights leader who’d been assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

For many outside of Memphis, Elvis was the ultimate appropriator of black culture: a continuation of the white King of Jazz (Paul Whiteman) and the white King of Swing (Benny Goodman), a forerunner of the supposed white kings of rap (Eminem and Vanilla Ice), pretenders whose claims to their respective thrones melted into pools of absurdity.

But during his rise to stardom in the 1950s, Elvis had been a majestic talent: an electrifying singer and performer. In his 1960s movies, which were usually formulaic showcases for his talents, Elvis exemplified a boy’s idea of a cool man. He drove fast cars, he chased pretty women and he knocked bad guys out with deft blows. And he was beautiful, just as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were. Like them, Elvis’ voice and life straddled Saturday night and Sunday morning, the secular and divine.

More important to many in Memphis, Elvis, a native of Mississippi, was a Southern man who’d come home again and stayed there. His generosity among the locals was legendary. People proudly wore the jewelry he’d given them. They drove the Cadillacs he’d given them too.

On Sundays, Memphis radio stations played Elvis’ gospel music, for which he won his only three Grammys. He’d died in 1977. He was just 42, and in the early 1980s in Memphis, many were still trying to come to grips with his death.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Memphis had come to grips with Martin’s death in one place in a disdainful way: at the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader had stayed before his assassination. Martin’s room was marked by a few pastel ribbons and little else. I continue to be haunted by the mournful breeze I saw stirring the fraying ribbons.

I’d gone to the sagging motel to interview Margaret Walker, who regaled me with stories about the racism and the sexism she’d had to overcome to produce poems such as For My People.

Walker was staying in a room just a few doors down from where Martin had stayed in the hours before an assassin’s bullet claimed his life on April 4, 1968. When I walked by Martin’s last room, I saw a black woman sitting on the bed in another motel room a few feet away. A white man was putting on his suit or taking it off. This was in the middle of the day.

A lot has changed since then. Since 1991, the former Lorraine Motel is a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. In the early 1980s, Memphis largely neglected Beale Street and its blues heritage. Today, Memphis and a revitalized Beale Street celebrate the blues.

Furthermore, Memphis has had black mayors. Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, have too, circumstances that would not have been possible without the crusade that Martin led.

Indeed, the powerhouse football programs at Alabama and Georgia, which will be on display in the national championship game Monday night in Atlanta, wouldn’t be possible without the modern civil rights movement either. So many of the teams’ key players are black. Neither football program was integrated before 1971.

Today, people all around the world will mark what would have been Elvis’ 83rd birthday. They will sing his greatest hits. They will watch his movies. And those who knew him will tell stories about what made the man special.

Next Monday, Martin will be remembered too. He led a movement for equality, justice and peace that didn’t start with him and won’t end with us. In the darkest hour, Martin said, light a candle. When what he called the mountain of despair loomed highest, he said, pluck a stone of hope from that mountain.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a measure making the third Monday in the year a federal holiday. The holiday began to be observed three years later. And this year, the national King observance falls on what would have been Martin’s 89th birthday.

In some ways, the ritualized ways we remember Martin, including the replays of his most famous speeches and sermons, his greatest hits, have become a kind of forgetting, not of Martin but of our shared responsibility to help make America a better country and the world a better place.

So it won’t be what any one of us does next Monday, but it will be what we can come together to do next Tuesday and beyond that will honor Martin. During his life, he was an American and world leader. He challenged his country to live up to its highest ideals.

And his words, deeds and example challenge each of us, now and always, to find ways to further that noble cause.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.

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