What I Thought I Knew


By Mark Scott

Memphis, I need to talk. Because after 32 years as a high school teacher in Memphis I thought I knew most, if not all, of what I needed to teach in my history classes. I could not have been more wrong.

I have been on several Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminars. From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, these seminars “offer K–12 educators with programs featuring leading American history professors, visits to local historic sites, and hands-on work with primary sources.”

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, website here, is dedicated to promoting the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources.

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This year I had a choice. I could go to Edinburgh, Scotland, a place I always wanted to visit, and learn about the Enlightenment. Or forego an international trip and attend the seminar about The Civil Rights Movement in my own hometown. I chose the latter, Memphis. The seminar at Rhodes College changed the lens through which I look at the history of my city and myself.

Now, I love Memphis. To be sure, we have a self-esteem issue that goes beyond mere cynicism – you know what I’m talking about, Memphis – but I defend my city whenever I hear criticism of it. However, after a week at this particular seminar I now see that my defense of it was often based on incomplete knowledge. This is an embarrassing thing for me as a history teacher to admit, but it’s true. 

Because if I’m being honest, most conversations about the Civil Right Movement which I have been a part of with other white Memphians quickly gloss over iconic moments and end. Frankly most of the time we just don’t talk about it.

The event that all Memphians know about the Civil Rights Movement is the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over 51 years ago. It is a pivotal point in our history. We all know it. 

Or, we think we know it. We sometimes look at history as events – happenings – and yet as Gilder Lehrman reminded me, the march of history is entirely a direct result of groups of good or bad actors. The actions of groups of individuals who stood up to injustices – the upstanders – have too often remained nameless in our history books. The bad actors, those who stood by and said nothing – the bystanders – promoted for example the legacy of segregation, an injustice if there ever was one, counter to what our founding fathers believed and what we claim to believe that “all men are created equal.”

My belief is that unfortunately it is the latter group – the bystanders – that makes up the group that raised me. They shaped what I thought I knew.

Of course I knew about the sit-ins. But what I did not know was that more a half century before Rosa Parks sat in the front of that bus our own Ida B. Wells attempted a streetcar boycott in the 19th Century. It failed. Just as in ’68, there were outcries from African Americans then too. All was not well in Memphis.

Ida B. Wells and her October 1892 pamphlet, the first published after her Memphis newspaper offices were burned to the ground. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Ida B. Wells, the daughter of freedmen, was a firebrand and revolutionary journalist that promoted freedom for her community out of the necessity to provide for her own immediate family. She was a contemporary of Nathan Bedford Forrest – her story is a counterbalance to his. Her self-determination and a spirit of independence enabled her to fight for herself as well as for the empowerment for an entire community that had been pushed aside. The white Memphis of the 1890’s destroyed her newspaper presses and she became an exile. 

I wonder, as we fight over monuments, where is her memorial? 

I knew that Memphis was one of the few places in the South where the Black community could vote prior to the 1960’s. I believed that we had been a progressive southern city. Prior to ’68 didn’t we deal with the Civil Rights Movement more peaceably than other southern cities? Memphis did not the have any riots, or the Birmingham Bombing, or Selma’s Bloody Sunday. But this was only half the truth. I was wrong. We weren’t as progressive as I had thought.

Sure, Black Memphians did get to vote. But only if they voted the way Boss Crump’s political machine wanted. If not, they risked not only political disenfranchisement but also economic and social ruin. Obviously, this is not freedom.

Except for Dr. King’s death on the balcony of the Lorraine, Memphis is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the Civil Rights Movement. But here we saw the 1940 “Reign of Terror” that violently enforced the idea of Separate but Equal. We had lynchings. We enforced segregation at our zoo, libraries, buses and neighborhoods. We solidified the notion of two cities. 

We do not talk about these things – we need to.

Yes, we took the first steps in integrating our schools with the Memphis 13, prior to federal mandates of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, in 1961. However, we don’t talk about the limitations and secrecy necessary in that move to avoid violence. We also don’t talk about the massive resistance to forced busing of the 1970’s, which created the largest private school system in the United States and saw a school bus buried in North Memphis as a demonstration of keeping our city separated. 

Those divisions still exist today. Only 2% of black-owned businesses in the city have paid employees. 30% of our black residents live below the poverty line. We are still two cities. One, the place of good abode for those in power. Another, a city of oppression that made a massive part of the population “the other.” 

Yes, we do need to talk about these things. Because I believe that the source of Memphis’ self-esteem issue – a degree of shame – could also be why some of us have avoided talking about our Civil Rights History. Those who held political, economic, and social power in Memphis the longest – my Memphis, white Memphis – have done a good job as bystanders, convincing ourselves that the murder of Dr. King was one of those unfortunate events that happened in an otherwise peaceful city. That, and spending the last 51 years segregating ourselves by fleeing to mostly-white neighborhoods and schools, furthering the idea of two cities.

We must move beyond the paralysis of this 51-year hangover. We need to start talking. We need to ask ourselves questions.

Can I help Memphis become one city? Can I stop racism wherever I see it around me?

Can I support those who want to direct more money into neighborhoods, who promote equity in education, and who create opportunities for all our citizens, not just those along the Poplar Corridor?

Yes, and I can learn our history – all of it. I can use different lenses to bring our history into a more accurate focus. I can acknowledge that I have benefited from the systems created by my forefathers, benefits not extended to all, and support efforts to dismantle those that still exist. I can do this by joining groups that advocate for one Memphis for all and support those who want to lead this city to a unified and fair future. 

I can also reflect upon my own actions. Sometimes I have to remember to do as I say to my students: admit your mistakes; change what needs to be changed; and do not allow your failures or others’ paralysis to dictate who you are. Don’t be the bystander, be the upstander. Simple to say of course, but difficult to do.

Ida B. Wells did not allow failure and intimidation, the destruction of her newspaper presses by white citizens, and exile from her own hometown to stop or define her. As a Memphian I believe that this city has the same opportunity right now. 

Various figures representing the history of the Civil Rights Movement from 1955 through 1968, with a lunch-counter sit-in at the top, and Rosa Parks at the center. From the National Civil Rights Museum and Wikimedia Commons

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I and others who call Memphis home today are now central to our city’s history and story. I am actively looking for what I can do to make it the model city that I know it can be. Black Memphis and White Memphis must come together and create one city. Millions of people come here to visit each year – they love our city – and thousands more may relocate here in the years to come. We all need to learn how great a place this is, including and not separate from the full challenging history that got us to this point. 

Our history, and our experiences as a city, are assets for growth – not something to be avoided. I learned this because I chose a hometown seminar over an international foray. My perspective and knowledge are much improved, and it has made me even prouder of my Memphis, especially when I think of the opportunities that I have to change things for the better. I challenge all of us that, as we march into our third century atop this bluff overlooking the Mississippi, to do what southerners tend to do a lot of – talk. And while we are conversing let’s not forget to listen more to our fellow citizens, so that together we become ONE Magnificent Memphis on the Mighty Mississippi. <>

Mark Scott is in his 32nd and last year of teaching high school students in Shelby County. He was a Preserve America History’s Teacher of the Year recipient in 2010, and led a historic project to save the Presidents Island One Room Schoolhouse. See their blog here.

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