Homecoming: How National Icons and Local Figures Spent Martin Luther King Week in Memphis 

"It was the four corners of the civil rights universe," said one observer of the large, predominantly African-American audience at Friday night's annual April 4th Foundation dinner at the Convention Center. And, from such iconic figures as Harry Belafonte, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, actor Danny Glover, and U.S. Representatives John Lewis and John Conyers, came an abundance of rhetoric aimed at the residual guardians of privilege.

Here's what Belafonte, who was here in 1968 in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and who returned here some years later to receive a Freedom Award, said about his latest visit to Memphis: "It was hard to look on Memphis as a place to be, or for a man to want to visit again. Through the years this community has struggled to find its moral center and to begin to engage in work to heal the pain of this place and to put that in focus for our journey toward d liberation."

Both the pain of the place - specifically, the assassination here of Dr. King 40 years ago - and that struggle for a redeeming moral center were aspects, too, of visits to Memphis last week from two presidential candidates, Democratic senator Hillary Clinton and Republican senator John McCain.

Speaking on Friday at Mason Temple, site of King's immortal "I've been to the mountaintop" speech, the last one he ever gave, Clinton took note of "the young people standing in the back of the room" and said, "Because of him, after 219 years and 43 presidents who have been white men, this next generation will grow up taking for granted that a woman or an African American can be president of the United States."

That grace note and acknowledgement of her opponent for the Democratic nomination, fellow senator Barack Obama, had a parallel in simultaneous remarks being delivered by McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, at the National Civil Rights Museum (where Clinton, too, would come after her remarks at Mason Temple).

"I was wrong," confessed McCain about his vote in 1983 against the creation of Martin Luther King national holiday. The admission was greeted with boos by some members of the crowd gathered in the Museum parking lot, and it would earn McCain derision from some political opponents, who wondered, as 9th District congressman Steve Cohen did at a Town Hall meeting the next day, why McCain, as he acknowledged, had failed back then to grasp the "issue."

Clinton, too, had owned up to feelings of shortcomings in the past. After lamenting the imitations of her background in an all-white suburb of Chicago, she spoke to the challenged she felt as a student at Wellesley upon hearing of King's assassination: "I felt everything had just shattered....You know I joined a protest march in Boston and wore a black armband...But I felt like it wasn't enough."

The third member of the current trial of presidential hopefuls, Obama, did not come to Memphis, though he spoke to the occasion of Dr. King's death and the meaning of his life elsewhere. But, even if he was not present in the city, Obama's presence here was felt in things said about him by others. He was endorsed by both Lowery and Belafonte, the latter of whom, speaking on Sunday at a Cohen-sponsored "Town Hall" at Rhodes College, called him "our beloved Barack Obama."

Both, however, were also critical of Obama for backing down from his support of his controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright, to accommodate the media.

As Lowery put it, "They're not concerned about Jeremiah Wright....They've got their nerve...the gall of their suggestion that the man ought to leave his church. By what moral authority!..I heard him say that that's where he found Jesus....You're gonna tell me to leave the place where I first saw the light?"

Cohen, who figured prominently at the April 4th Foundation dinner as well as at his Rhodes conclave the next day, had a good week - picking up endorsements of various kinds from most of the dignitaries present at the two occasions. Conyers, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised Cohen, a committee member, for his work and made an outright endorsement of Cohen. Rep. Lewis followed suit.

Belafonte (whose sister, Shirley Cooks, is Cohen's Washington chief of staff) was a bit more oblique, though his remarks, both at the Convention Center and at Rhodes, were highly favorable to the incumbent congressman. At Rhodes, he included an implied swipe at Cohen's main Democratic primary opponent, Nikki Tinker: "I'm not here to tell you how to vote, but I have this to say to you. Justice knows no race....Commitment has no race. We might be getting another Condoleeza Rice. You might be getting another cunning liar. Be careful what you do in the name of race.Just take a look at how our [sic] congressman has voted, at his record." He concluded, "I'll be back to celebrate the victory."

Jake Ford, who ran for Congress in the 9th District two years ago as an independent and filed to do so again last week, had a harder time of it. He and brother Isaac Ford made remarks at the Election Commission on Thursday that seemed to be insisting that, since the 9th District contained a black majority, it should be represented by a black. Candidate Ford was also quoted as saying that Cohen, who is Jewish, was "for Jews" but not for blacks.

These were odd assertions during a week when Memphis and the world were honoring a man who dreamed of a time when people were judged not by race, "but by the content of their character."

Both Jake Ford's father, former congressman Harold Ford Sr.,and his brother, former congressman and current head of the Democratic Leadership Council Harold Ford Jr., were in town for a bachelor party preceding the latter's forthcoming wedding, and both promptly disavowed these comments, Harold Ford Jr. calling them an "insult" and going on record as having advised his brother against running.

Arguably the last word on MLK week came this Tuesday from the Rev. James Lawson of Nashville, a former King associate, who told Memphis Rotarians that Memphis, as the site of King's assassination, might ironically become the site for "the beginnings of change."


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