Memphis

Two bullet holes marring a slab of glass outside the room where Martin Luther King was murdered are not associated with that event. “You know how those things happen,” said the brother of the manager of the Lorraine Motel, lately down from Detroit, as he unlocked the door to the shrine hung with a heart-shaped arrangement of yellow plastic flowers. The marble plaque in the window bears the quotation from Genesis: “They said to one another, behold, here cometh the dreamer. . . . Let us slay him . . . and we shall see what shall become of his dreams.” Inside, preserved under glass, are the dishes from which King ate his last meal (including salt and pepper shakers), the bedspread in which he was wrapped before being taken to the hospital, amateur photographs of King lounging on a bed in his shirt sleeves. The room also contains a donation box, the library belonging to the motel’s late owner—Lorraine Bailey, who died of a heart attack the day of King’s funeral—and two pairs of her shoes encrusted with rhinestones. An altar in the alcove supports a purple cross, dusty plastic lilies, the Home Bible for Family Reading open to the Prophets.

A few blocks to the north stretch the remains of Beale Street. The old First Baptist Church dominates a razed plain east of Hernando Street that a year ago was crowded with ramshackle houses sporting elaborate unpainted latticework, and was full, on weekends, of the smell of ribs or blue cat cooking over wood fires. The corner of Beale and Main Streets is claimed by the new building, housing the city’s light, gas, and water department, that squats in the midst of geometric landscaping unconducive to loitering, though the loiterers have all moved on; the restaurants—Red Johnny’s, the Green Castle—and the Elks and Victory Clubs have all gone with them. Lanski Brothers prospers (Elvis still drops by to pick up a tapered shirt or an ensemble in crushed velvet, according to Bud), but the faces lurking in the pawnshops look particularly haggard. Saplings planted in Handy Park shade the bronze statue of W. C. himself clutching his trumpet; occasionally a youngblood preacher in a black suit and a high starched collar will show up on Saturday afternoon to harangue the few remaining citizens with fierce Old Testament logic.

Both sides of Beale between Second and Fourth Streets have been declared part of a national historical monument. The Memphis Housing Authority plans to incorporate the monument into its Beale Street Urban Renewal Project and to create there a “Bluelight District,” a shopping plaza “calculated to memorialize Beale Street as it was back at the turn of the century.” One businessman, a Housing Authority brochure boasts, “bought a small building classed as sub-standard, tore it down and announced his plans to replace it with an outdoor-indoor restaurant catering to lovers of barbecued meats.” Investors “want to see the Blues brought back to its rightful prominence,” and one entertainer “has expressed interest in establishing ‘the plushest nightclub anyone in Memphis has ever seen.’ ” Traffic will be prohibited; colonnades of modern design will be attached to the fronts of the old buildings and will run the length of the street, permitting shoppers and tourists to browse in any weather. Overhead, sections of some transparent material will let in light.

Overton Square, further east, is not really a square but an intersection containing a traffic island near old Overton Park, once the promenade for the city’s burghers who settled about it in stolid middle-class neighborhoods later drained by the allure of the suburbs. A group of affluent Young Turks who attended Memphis University School together bought up moribund shops along Madison Avenue and had them converted into restaurants and boutiques with cunning facades and names like T.G.I.(“Thank God It’s”) Friday. Architecturally, Overton Square is an enclave of bright contemporary yesteryear, flourishing and unabashed in the middle of an archetypal American commercial setting: any Memphian with the wherewithal can fork down Shrimp Alice or buy a handcarved birdcage priced in four figures and never lose sight of a gas station or a lot displaying camping trailers.

“Southern Middletown”

The original inhabitants of Memphis were soldiers, survivors of the War of 1812, and their Indian women, who settled on the lower Chickasaw bluff. Propertied families that eventually took root and prospered—what Gerald Capers refers to in his Biography of a River Town as Memphis’ petite noblesse—were disrupted by the Civil War and decimated by the yellow fever epidemics which wiped out the poor Irish and drove the Germans north to St. Louis. These early settlers were replaced by rural outlanders more interested in a public display of morality and in building a good sewage system than in revelry or in supporting a professional theater. By the turn of the century Memphis wars becoming, says Capers, “a Southern Middletown. In losing its filth and some of its notorious viciousness it also lost . . . that unnamable quality which conspicuously differentiates Boston, Charleston and New Orleans from Pittsburgh and Kansas City.”

Faulkner disliked Memphis—so the story goes—and came up only to buy whiskey. The city isn’t typically Southern; there’s more than a touch of the West in these vast glazed skies, the feeling of raw energy, and the anarchic sprawl. Memphis’ chief link with the Deep South—King Cotton— hardly exists anymore, but the memory lives on in the annual Cotton Carnival, a poor relation to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, featuring parades, balls, and an elite of businessmen and high school beauties who assume the names of Egyptian deities and ride about town in open convertibles. Memphis has become a general commercial center, a Baptist convention town growing up, where eighteenyear-olds can buy their sloe gin across the bar and horce racing can at least be contemplated. Schlitz is building a $60 million brewery in Memphis; the city has been chosen as the headquarters for a U.S. postal district and a computer center for the Internal Revenue Service. And it is third in the nation in the sale of municipal bonds, birthplace of an indigenous bit of fauna known as the “Bond Daddy.” Bond Daddies are easily recognized on their turf—Friday’s—by their parked El Dorados, their gold Rolexes and red-white-and-blue saddle Oxfords, and by their confidences: “Look, you call up this little Po-dunk bank down in Mis’sippi and tell them you got some such ‘n’ such bonds for sale. Then you get your good buddy to call up that same Po-dunk bank and tell them he wants to buy some such ‘n’ such bonds. Pretty soon that little Po-dunk bank is back tinklin’ your beli . .

Memphis supports thirteen Holiday Inns. Until recently there were fourteen, but Holiday Inns, Inc., arranged to give an outmoded structure, worth approximately $1 million, to Memphis, the city in which its world headquarters are also located. Holiday City, in East Memphis, is a complex of buildings resembling fenestrated cereal boxes; the office of one of the co-founders. Wallace E. Johnson, combines opulence with a sense of transience —a supermotel room containing a massive veneered desk that supports three volumes of the Christian Book of Knowledge, two Bibles, and a tin of the official Holiday Inn candy. Peanut Pillows. Johnson, seventy and expansive, lounges behind the desk with the avuncular ease of a man whose future reservations have all been confirmed. He wears a tie stamped with the Holiday Inn imprint and the words, “It’s a wonderful world”; with little provocation he incants. “A Holiday Inn room is completed somewhere in the world every twenty minutes out of every twenty-four-hour day. ... A living unit is produced every twenty minutes out of every eight-hour day, five days a week. A sickbed is provided every fifty-five minutes out of every eight-hour day. In stock values we’re worth about $1.25 billion, but that doesn’t include things like mortar.” He swivels and assaults the adding machine. “Let’s see, what’s $17,500 multiplied by 180,000? How did we do it? Well, because Memphis Negro woman says, “I been lected queen of the Southside Baptist Church and I wanted to ask you to donate a plastic flower,” Loeb tells her, “I’m not going to donate flowers to a church in election year. It would look like I was trying to buy votes. I’m not going to buy votes from anybody, do you understand?” A stump of a man wielding a damp, ragged cigar asks for a stoplight to be installed near his home, and Loeb says. “I’m not going to have any light installed for political reasons. Danny Thomas asked me to have a light put in at the foot of the bridge, and I didn’t even do that.”

The man suggests that Loeb has “politicking phobia.” He drags his foot across the carpet, says, “If I had some of this in my house, I’d think I was in heaven,” and makes for the door. Loeb comes around the desk after him, stalks him with slow, purposeful strides. He overtakes the man (who wails, “Now I think I’m in hell!”) grasps his right hand and begins to saw, and says, “I want you to feel free to come on down here any Thursday you like.”

Later Loeb, when asked by an outof-town reporter for his opinion of the influence of the death of Martin Luther King on Memphis, sucks on an empty pipe for fully ten seconds and then says through his teeth, “I don’t have any opinion!”

Feeling secure

Forty percent of Memphis’ 600,000 residents are black. When Craig Leake, a young white filmmaker for WMC-TV (owned by Scripps-Howard, as is a local radio station and both the morning and afternoon newspapers), made a film presenting black people’s views entitled 40 Percent Speaks, he was asked almost immediately to make another film entitled 60 Percent Speaks. Another of Leake’s documentaries, Our Good Abode (from the old Memphis cachet, “City of Good Abode”), dealt with substandard housing in the predominantly black neighborhoods of north and south Memphis; in the film a white landlord says that Negroes “like hearing the next family fighting through the thin wall. . . . It’s the only way they feel secure.” The day after the film was shown on local tele-

vision, says Leake, Mayor Loeb telephoned the station manager and told him, “Don’t send that little son-of-abitch up here to interview me again.”

Memphis’ schools are integrated. There are black people in government and in business (the Metro Shopping Plaza is owned mostly by Negroes) and even in Cotton Carnival, but there is still no such thing in Memphis as a black plumber. Fewer than 15 percent of union carpenters are black. The electricians are just beginning to accept black apprentices. Unemployment among blacks between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five is as high as 40 percent.

Dr. Hollis Price, for twenty-seven years president of all black LeMoyne College and, according to a Commercial Appeal survey, one of the forty-two most influential men in town, views the situation as “a matter of class. The lot of the skilled black has improved, but the mass of black people has been largely unaffected by recent innovations.” By his own admission Price has been for years “the Negro” appointed to boards and committees dominated by white men (“We like his mind,” is the common accolade). “I never took a dog-in-themanger attitude,” says Price, relaxing in his office in a local television studio, where he acts as the newly created Director of Urban Affairs.

The new president of the Junior League, probably the most exclusive of the many women’s clubs, obviously speaks the truth when she says, “I don’t really know any black people.” She describes the Junior League as “a training organization for educated and interested young women who want to participate in the community” (when a member turns forty she becomes a so-called “sustainer”), proffers a “no comment” when asked what the reaction of the 930 members would be if a Negro were proposed for membership.

The diminutive, driven woman operating out of a set of cramped, anonymous offices on Vance is Mrs. Maxine Smith, executive secretary of the Memphis branch of the NAACP. She maintains that “the soul of Memphis hasn’t changed in fifty years. As far as furthering the goals of Martin Luther King, I can’t point to a single direct result of his death. Just this year the city consented to name a leg of the expressway after him, and when it was opened they didn’t even have any signs made. Black students are still excluded from athletics and cheerleading; they’re suspended and physically abused. Blacks are barred from churches—eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in town. The Baptist, Methodist, and St. Joseph’s hospitals—all good Christian names—for years wouldn’t accept blacks, and now we can’t get blacks on their staffs. We still have to file complaints against restaurants for discrimination.” She relents, makes a weary gesture of dismissal. ”I can give you a whole list of barriers we have overcome, but we’re still fighting on the same fronts, and the fight is harder because it’s more subtle.”

The Memphis Panthers, a local contingent of the NCCF (National Committee to Combat Fascism), meet in a two-story house on McLemore with drawn shades and a poster demanding FREE THE MEMPHIS 16 hanging behind a dingy window pane; the entrance hall is papered with the covers of the Black Panther news sheet; the sitting room contains many copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and one of Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette. Janice Payne, a dominant voice, insists that the white community thinks of King “as just another nigger dead,” and that there was no real rioting in Memphis in 1968. “Riots? Man, that was just a little flare-up. The police killed one black boy, but that happens all the time. One reason why Memphis hasn’t gotten more federal money for urban renewal—which means ‘nigger removal’—is that there hasn’t been any rioting.”

The Memphis 16—all but one of whom are out of jail—squatted with black families in a new but unoccupied housing project. The following day the Commercial Appeal, the morning newspaper, ran an editorial stating that it was regrettable that it took the Panthers to draw attention to the fact that public housing was not being utilized. “That editorial really surprised me.” Janice Payne admits. “Really, it knocked me right over.” Their rhetoric is Marxist ("All we need is paper, pencil, and ideology”), but they are working within black churches to bring about change. Another member says, “White people think of us as pistoltoting fools, but it’s not true.”

The Memphis Police Department is one of the few law-enforcement bodies in the world to use a hollowpoint bullet as regular issue. A young, unarmed warrant officer in plain clothes explains that it is not a “dumdum” bullet, designed to do maximum damage to its object, but a nonricocheting slug developed by Remington to provide maximum safety to bystanders. He talks freely of police procedure over coffee in the canteen, interrupting himself occasionally to glance over his shoulder. “In the '68 riots we discovered that overreaction in terms of manpower was the best solution. We developed a system based on tactical units of five or six squad cars containing five men each, which gave us a single striking force of approximately thirty men — enough to disperse most gatherings. Now there’s a certain amount of Peter Principle built into any large organization, and in my opinion the Police Department is riddled with it. An emphasis on education is slowly changing this. The older officers with only a high school degree or less are fighting it tooth and nail, but the word is that if you want to move up in the Department, you better get your butt into school. The old guys are just as prejudiced as ever, but they’re trying to cover it up. Each group of recruits is less prejudiced than the last. I’m convinced it’s a matter of education,”

Anticipation

Memphis in June is predominantly green. Viewed from a revolving bar atop an office building in East Memphis, it is a carpet of vernal profusion pierced by an occasional steeple or high-rise apartments. The totalitarian complex of Memphis State University and the shopping centers (56 at last count, one of them covered to maintain 72 degrees year-round) have sprung up like autonomous city-states at the frontier’s edge. To the west, where a half dozen office buildings interrupt the sun’s descent into the rice fields of Arkansas and seem as insubstantial as their halos, the Mississippi River hems the city; to the east, there is nothing to stop Memphis’ growth.

The Strip is a section of Highland Avenue near the University where flamboyant young people and policemen come to clash. It used to be an unincorporated whistle-stop with the unlikely name of Normal, Tennessee, and since the city swallowed it, it barely qualifies as suburban—a community of produce and sundry stores converted to pinball arcades, record stores, boutiques, and the inevitable head shops. The Strip is notorious as Memphis’ “drug center,” which means that kids with vague connections with MSU smoke mostly pot in the neighborhood, though one of many patrolling policemen will tell you, “You got the money in your pocket, you can buy anything you want along here.” American flags abound in front of the remaining “straight” stores; there is an unmistakable air of charade, as if the participants—cops and kids—realize that they have missed the real thing.

The dominant mood in Memphis today is anticipation, an abiding confidence in the city’s potential, economic and political; the belief of many citizens is that Memphis should be judged not by what it is but by what it is becoming.

Freshman City Councilman Jerred Blanchard, who came into office with Loeb and now faces a stiff battle for re-election, was the first white councilman to join the three black ones in support of the sanitation workers in 1968. He believes that “in the long run" Memphis will fare better than Northern cities in race relations, and he offers a variation of an old adage: “Blacks and whites have lived here together for years. I think we fear each other less.”

-JAMES CONAWAY