Render Unto Memphis 

Racial bitterness, seething resentments, and fun for the whole family

Racial bitterness, seething resentments, and fun for the whole family

Of the three great river towns that the Mississippi River has fostered, it was the misfortune of Memphis to be the one most isolated and most inward looking.

On the one hand, it has the same raffish exuberance and free-and-easy heritage of New Orleans to the south and St. Louis to the north. Memphis may be Tennessee’s most fun city—both in the social games people play in their frivolous moments, and in the sense that observers with a well-developed sense of irony can savor the Byzantine qualities of the city’s machinations.

On the other hand, Memphis lacks both the gateway port status and the amalgam of cultures that has made New Orleans America’s most eccentric city. It has also never had the outward-looking posture assumed by St. Louis as the jumping-off point to the West. Instead, as a regional center stunted by the defeat of 1865, Memphis has had to work out its own future without the fresh air of contact with a more dynamic world beyond its borders.

The result is a city of resentments—resenting its fate, resenting its place in the world, resenting the world for not noticing, resenting the other people in the community. It lacks a constant flowing current to keep its accumulated resentments from fermenting too tartly. Its citizens have rubbed up too closely against each other for too long. And the raw irritation never seems to subside.

Memphis has never thrown itself totally into being part of Tennessee. Sometimes it sees itself as more like the capital of a surviving fragment of the 19th century, embracing the Mississippi Delta, the flatlands west of the Tennessee River, and the more benighted parts of Arkansas. It has its own university, its own music, its own version of the state fair (the “Mid-South Fair”), its own subdivided politics, and its own heroes of wealth.

But that has not stopped Memphis from resenting the rest of the state for not embracing the city more fully, even as Memphis has kept a chilly distance from the rest of the state. When Memphis bestirs itself to notice others in Tennessee, it is usually just a grumble. Whenever the state’s goodies are passed out, Memphis usually thinks it is last in line.

The city has never taken much pleasure in the state’s triumphs. When General Motors chose Spring Hill, on the outskirts of Nashville, for the Saturn plant site after a highly publicized national site search, Memphis yawned. The plant was touted as the largest U.S. industrial investment since World War II. Yet to Memphians it was another example of Lamar Alexander, the particular traitorous governor of the moment, overlooking Memphis for favored Middle Tennessee—as though Alexander could have ordered an unwilling GM to set up shop in Memphis.

Memphis, snubbed by the NFL after years of ardent courtship, was offered a consolation prize and was named the temporary home of the Oilers until the team built its permanent facility in Nashville. But the city cashed in on the opportunity to vent its resentments and shunned the team. The result was the lowest attendance figures of any professional football team. Bud Adams may want to market the newly named Titans as Tennessee’s team, but Memphis appears to want none of it.

It was not always so. When the legendary political boss E.H. Crump bestrode Memphis politics like a colossus in the 1930s and ’40s, he wielded a united city like a club, carrying a big bloc of votes with which to make deals to keep the upper hand in state politics. (In one of the oddities of Southern politics, Memphis is one of the few places where black voter participation was encouraged—after a fashion—in the first half of this century. The Crump machine would pay poll taxes for black voters to increase the total vote Crump could deliver.)

When the Crump machine crumbled in the early 1950s, the statewide influence of Memphis as a political force declined. Over time, as the city became more democratic (as opposed to Democratic), the natural divisions in the community turned it from a powerful united bloc into a grand squabbling fiefdom.

That is not to say that Memphis has been without influence in state politics. It has sent two governors to Nashville since 1970, both of whom rank as by-products of the most famous Memphis resentment of all. For, in Memphis, as a Democratic operative once famously observed, “Even the liberals are bigots.”

Racial politics have been the driving engine of the community, both in the way it votes and in the way it has metamorphosed into two parallel universes. The gritty old Southern river town is now flanked by a suburban Eden to the east. And it is there where all of life’s struggles and history’s legacies are left behind in the city that used to be.

Civil rights spawned the modern Republican Party in Memphis in the early 1960s, when a group of erstwhile Democrats seized control of the vestigial (mostly black) Republican organization and built a disciplined party organization that remains the most efficient in the state. While neither of the governors the Shelby Republican organization produced was an overt rider of the racial tides, both Winfield Dunn (1971-1975) and current Gov. Don Sundquist were beneficiaries of the organization that the 1960s racial contretemps produced. Shelby County executive James Rout is generally considered a formidable gubernatorial contender for 2002 on the strength of his Shelby Republican support alone.

All these dark forces that have made Memphis much of what it is today also make it seem entirely like too ugly a place. That assessment, however, is unfair. For while the veneer of community may have been rubbed thin in Memphis, it is still a community with a party in its heart. Memphis has always struggled with a bigger share of the burden of Southern history than most places. The most cataclysmic event of the civil rights struggle—the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King—occurred in Memphis, and the consequences of segregation and oppression in the city and its more vicious hinterland are now seen in the broad disparities between rich and poor. The city keeps looking for the one thing, the one fix, that will put the city back on the right track. Over the years, it seems the solutions they have sought (successfully or unsuccessfully) have tended to tilt toward the things that offered one form of party or another—Mud Island, Overton Square, Beale Street, NFL football, horse racing and casino gambling, and The Pyramid.

And why not? Memphis is a city that is capable of more things than it realizes. After all, it has nurtured one of the great American companies—Federal Express—which has prospered by running its business on the principles of fairness and dignity for all who work there.

Every year, Memphis has one true moment of grace when it seems at home with itself, its heritage, and the whole of its population. The event is another party, a tradition that began in the 1970s called the “Sunset Symphony.” For that event, a robust and diverse crowd gathers, some arriving the night before, on the bluffs overlooking the river at Tom Lee Park. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra performs, followed by a fireworks display. The highlight has always been the same thing: basso profundo James Hyter singing “Ol’ Man River,” accompanied by the symphony. With the river rolling by in the background, the crowd is invited to join in on the chorus. The 30,000 or 40,000 assembled guests repeat the chorus five or six times.

This is the city’s moment of grace: a moment in which a broad cross section of the community finds joy in the city and its relationship to the river. In Memphis, despite the resentments, and the racial politics, and all that, there is a commonality to the toils and struggles of its people.

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