Monday, April 6, 2009

Memphis Crossroads...A Spiritual Journey

This was my first trip to Memphis. Because of my background in African American studies I know the place Memphis holds in our history... Memphis blues, Stax records, the sanitation worker's strike that would bring Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis and his last day, even the burden that many in Memphis had to reconcile with because of that fateful day.

I was actually officially in Memphis for the 10th annual
White Privilege Conference, which in itself is part of the journey. That a Black man had to start the WPC is ironic but also not surprising. On the one hand, the WPC creates space for understanding, accountability, and healing. But it also is a measure of how far we still need to go, with as many indicators that privilege permeates our society even at a conference that is supposed to be addressing it head on. But at least the journey has begun.

Most importantly, this past weekend marked the 41st year since MLK Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. The National Civil Rights Museum now marks the spot. I visited the museum on the anniversary. I left my rental car and walked toward the front of the Lorraine...and then it hit me...a feeling that stopped me in my tracks. I didn't see it coming, and still can barely describe the sense that came over me. But it was powerful...and spiritual...and heavy...and in that moment I felt maybe a hint of what Memphis had been living with for 41 years...the weight of history and...a dream deferred.

I felt the Memphis blues. And like the blues, there are regrets but reckless abandonment. There is pain but lots and lots of love...and love making. There is the weight of what could have been, but the freedom that comes with living in the moment. It is the crossroads of life, somewhere between Beale and Mulberry...between Martin Luther King's service and sacrifice, and B.B. King's humanity expressed through music. The crossroads is where both meet.

I did attend some conference activities, including keynote speeches by Juan Battle and Tim Wise. Battle talked about service and sacrifice...Wise discussed how white privilege and denial did not deny racism, but denies their own humanity instead (whites). The messages from both keynotes taken together, service and sacrifice with humanity as our foundation is a good take away message from this weekend to continue working for social justice and human rights.

I planned to return to the Lorraine for a candlelight vigil at 5pm. I did return but not in time for the vigil, which became a blessing in disguise for two reasons. When we arrived slightly later, it was closer to the exact time of day (6ish) that MLK Jr. was shot and declared dead. We met a couple men that had arrived to be there at the exact time of day. One was Andrew Withers, son of Ernest Withers, one of the most important photo journalist of the Civil Rights Movement and a Memphis icon in history.


Meeting Mr. Withers was a blessing. In 2009, it is good to know that people will take time to talk and connect. We were able to spend time with him and get his first hand knowledge of that day in history. But it was not all about the visitors, we did not know the city well and he and his friend Mike welcomed us warmly. They gave us an escort to a place to get a great meal...and it was great. While we followed his car, he would stop from time to time in the middle of the street to give us some information about places we passed. He took his time to help us on a day that must have meant so much to him personally, having marched with MLK Jr. and lost his father less than two years ago. But he helped us in that selfless manner that has come to define the beautiful side of the South. He provided not only a connection to our past, but a shining example of the power of our own humanity and a renewal of hope for the future.

The other reason I was late for the vigil was because I was at the conference watching youth perform. I know generation next will
Rise Up and be the change we need. Their spirit embodies the power of hope and humanity. MLK Jr. was only 26 when he took the baton. The race is not over, but the baton is now ours...and while we have to first navigate the crossroad, we as a people will get to the promise land.

Thank you Dr. King. Thank you Memphis.

Mr. Andrew Withers

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