Monday, January 20, 2014

Remembering Memphis

Sometimes it feels funny to experience Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Portland, OR. Political correctness is...assumed, and expected. That's not to say racism doesn't happen, but it's different, and often more subtle.

Not so in Memphis. You can't get through the morning commute without noticing the stark racial and socio-economic divide. When I drove Danny to work in the morning, we'd be driving from the east side of the city to the center along with other Caucasian commuters, usually driving newer American cars or German imports.

On my way back to our hotel, though, I drove back with the African American service employees headed to work on the east side. The cars were either much older, much flashier, or both. Sometimes the tires were worn so deeply that the metal core sparked on the asphalt, and yet I've never seen so many Mustangs and Corvettes as I did on Memphis roads.

I'll never forget what it was like to be driving somewhere new, and to transition from a clean, photogenic neighborhood into a poorer, less safe one - with only a street or two in between. Antebellum-style houses would give way to loan shops, alcohol stores, run-down restaurants, and most tragically, funeral homes. So many funeral homes. All of these would have bars on the windows.

Danny and I once picked up Thai food for takeout, from a restaurant we later realized was near the Hickory Hill area. We counted the number of cop cars we saw until we returned to the hotel; there were seven.

Some time on the internet will tell you more about the racial/socio-economic divides that plague the city. Violent crime rates in the poorer neighborhoods are some of the highest in the nation. Public schools are predominately populated with African-American students; most of the middle-class Caucasian families send their children to private schools or home-school.

Memphis is, of course, home to the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was assassinated. That site is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Having spent time in that city, I can only hope and pray that one day it will be a place where grace and generosity will abound. As it was two years ago, I found it a city that could alternately the friendliest and the most frightening place I'd ever been.

As a Caucasian woman in the Pacific Northwest, I feel profoundly under-qualified to offer any sort of commentary on race relations. But I've traveled enough that in remembering Martin Luther King Jr., I can't shake the profound sense that we still have so very, very far to go. 

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