We barreled into Tennessee from the west and decided to make our way toward Nashville. Our latest breakdown episode had us circumventing some interviews and like a reporter tracking down a good story, we just can’t resist. Besides, there’s an awesome wine shop located just south of Nashville we wanted to visit. But first we stopped in Memphis.
Memphis is filled to the brim with history. Blues. Underground crime. But, most importantly, Civil Rights.
I’ve long admired Dr. Martin Luther King, as an orator, activist, leader, speaker, writer, and thinker. Many of my writing classes read Letter from Birmingham Jail as part of their introduction to rhetoric because it was a well-crafted argument and followed the one criteria I had for engaging in a debate: Is the side I am taking ethical?
I think it’s important to remember during Black History Month, that King’s legacy runs much deeper than the first lines of his “I Have a Dream…” speech. Yet, each February we see snippets of those first lines and the lines “Free at last” but rarely anything between. We have no larger understanding of how King organized the march or became such a large figure. It’s easy to see why we shortchange most of his life’s work. If we only remember the opening lines of his speech—the most abstract and agreeable parts—then we don’t need to look at the more concrete and harder-to-reconcile parts. If we set aside a holiday, we can overlook how he was maligned by media and the government alike before his death and not act on policy that would instill equal freedoms for all Americans. Oftentimes the people who are doing what is right, who are making a statement that aligns with equality, are criticized or called unAmerican, unpatriotic. They are called socialists and conspiracy theories abound about their motives and loyalties.
King was a tireless advocate for equal working conditions and the need to organize workers. He remained a strong critic of capitalism and realized the wealth and supposed greatness of early America was built overwhelmingly on an economy based in slave labor (one of the last of its kind since most “civilized” countries had banned slavery decades before the US). When people marched, he actually marched with them and did not watch the proceedings on Fox News. His activists knew how to protest in the nation’s capital without defecating in the Capitol Building.
If King had not been murdered in Memphis in 1968, he would be 93 today, six years younger than my still-living grandfather. Just a couple years ago I met the giant and one of my personal heroes, Congressman John Lewis. He signed my copy of March, the graphic novel he wrote about his time working on the Civil Rights campaign. He was arrested several times. He had his skull fractured by a police officer when he led peaceful protestors on Bloody Sunday. He was elected to Congress in 1985. He died at age eighty in 2020. His lifelong work, a continuation of the work started by King sixty years ago—the John Lewis Voting Rights Act—remains 100% unsupported by the Republicans in the Senate. Let that be Mitch McConnell and his acolytes’ legacy.