"I Am A Man!" was the rallying cry of black Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 during protests to fight for better wages and equal treatment. 47 years later, the statement sounds eerily similar to that of the modern "Black Lives Matter" movement.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th, 1968, he was there in support of the Memphis Sanitation Strike. City laws in Memphis at the time prevented black sanitation workers from seeking shelter from the rain anywhere but in the back of their garbage trucks. Tragically, two black employees where crushed when one of these compressor trucks malfunctioned. This was the tipping point that would propel the strike to national spotlight, garnering the support of SCLC and King, who would identify the strike as a major part of his Poor People's Campaign.
King's assassination, and the impending threat of riots in Memphis, forced city officials to capitulate to the workers demands. It was a small victory, but revealed just how difficult a road lay ahead for blacks in Memphis. While nationally and locally, rights and equal wages improved for African Americans, the larger issue of poverty, which King never got to fight, remains ever-present.
The current state of Memphis, particularly it's downtown sector, is a microcosm of African American plight, past and present. Largely abandoned for 40 years, the community embodies the issues King and the Poor People's Campaign sought to address; neglected infrastructure and lack of economic opportunities. Instead of seeking to address these issues, and supporting the growth of the existing black community in the downtown area, the city has followed the current model of urban revitalization and gentrification seen across the United States. The construction of entertainment and cultural hubs (a new basketball stadium, Blues Hall of Fames, and Civil Rights Museum), as well as a brand new rail system, have provided insurances to outside investors and perspective business owners that this area will be a budding commercial center. On the short end of the stick, per usual, are current low income residents and businesses who face rapidly increasing rent and taxes with little inclusion into decision making, not to mention an emerging community that no longer reflects or accepts them.
The impending result is a city that embodies the black culture and history of the past 60 years, but will largely cater to the wallets and whims of middle to upper middle class white tourists and Memphians. It's a sick juxtaposition that will see the Civil Rights Museum, and the site of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination at the Lorraine Motel, flanked by expensive trendy eateries and boutique hotels. The struggle of the black civil rights movement, and their cultural contributions to Memphis by way of Rock n' Roll and the Blues, will effectively be reduced to a tourism attraction.
Gentrification isn't a new phenomena, the deeper you dig into US history it appears everywhere. What's undeniable in America today, and Memphis, is the conscious decision over four decades to neglect these predominantly black and immigrant low income residents, to only turn around now amidst the urban revival, and provide the improvements as these communities are simultaneously getting priced out.
The gravity of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination here in Memphis thus feels much more amplified. If you bother to acknowledge its presence, the irony is suffocating. The blue light pouring from the awning at the Blues Hall of Fame identically match those flashing above police surveillance cameras posted on downtown intersections. On the corner of newly redeveloped Main Street, a mural depicting the Great Migration fades into red brick.
"Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world."