By Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr.
September 28th. Unless that’s your birthday or wedding anniversary, that date probably doesn’t ring any bells or send chills down your spine. Well, I hope to change that right now. For not only is September 28th the debut date of “Kenneth’s Keeping-It-Real Kommentary” at Roland Martin Reports, it’s the date on which Memphis, Tennessee formally acknowledged its debt to the United States of America.
On Sept. 28, 1991, the Lorraine Motel – site of the crucifixion of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – became the National Civil Rights Museum, the first comprehensive museum chronicling America’s civil rights movement. The NCRM is designed to answer two crucial questions: (1) Did the Movement die in Memphis? (2) What is the legacy of the Movement nationally and internationally?
The answers to those questions could be argued ad infinitum, but the need to ask them is what informs my own involvement in civic, political, and religious affairs. My position is that if the Movement did die with Martin it died because Memphians have stood idly by and let it breathe its last breath. If the legacy of the Movement is that Martin was its last standard bearer, then we Memphians are to blame.
Believe it or not, like it or not; Memphis was Martin’s “mountaintop.” When he prophesied that “we as a people will get to the Promised Land” he did so only after proclaiming that he had been to the mountaintop. Memphis represents everything he stood for and against. He came to Memphis in spite of the objections of his inner circle of trusted comrades. King saw something magnificent in Memphis.
From a pulpit in Memphis, MLK set forth a two-pronged next phase of the civil rights movement for African-Americans: First; withdraw economic support from those who “refuse to treat God’s children right,” and secondly, strengthen Black institutions and “put your money there.” The sad truth of the matter is that the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement has never been fully implemented.
We got the first phase right. We got voting rights and integration. We got Black folks elected to political office, culminating in the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. What we have not done is followed through with the next phase: Black economic empowerment. Obama can’t do that for Black folks. Black folks have to do that for themselves; which brings us back to Memphis.
According to the latest U. S. Census report, Memphis has the highest poverty rate of all big cities, and one of the highest drop-out rates, andone of the lowest percentages of Black-owned businesses, and one of the highest crime rates. And to top it all off, earlier this year Memphis voted to surrender its public school charter, effectively abandoning a $1 billion industry, to turn it over to the smaller county school system.
The previous paragraph really ought to tick you off! You should be ticked off because Martin put the onus on Memphis to succeed on behalf of the generations of Americans born after his death. In his words, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.” So you see, Memphis owes you something.
Memphis owes you leadership in the areas of education and Black economic empowerment. Memphis owes you a city you can look to with pride and not shame. I’m asking you to hold Memphis accountable. Memphis should be our Mecca. Every American should visit “the balcony” at least once before you die to breathe the air where King’s spirit was – in Andy Young’s words – “set free to soar into eternity.”
Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. is pastor of The New Olivet Baptist Church in Memphis. He has been a member of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners since 2006, and is author of Hip-Hop Is Not Our Enemy! You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/kwhalum.