If you live in one place for a while, you tend to get cynical about it. At least that's been my experience, having lived in such disparate cities as Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and San Francisco over the past 30 years. Longtime residents of all those cities are convinced that their politicians are the crookedest, that their drivers are the worst, that their clerks are the rudest, etc.
Memphis is no different. To our native legion of cynics, we're the "most racist city," our politicians are all crooks, our crime problem is the worst in America, etc. (Often, the folks making these remarks are the ones who proudly write letters to the paper about how they've "escaped" to Fayette or DeSoto counties. I think they're just lonely out there.)
I was reminded of our universal provincialism when I read a recent article about how Atlanta, a majority black city, like Memphis, may elect a white mayor for the first time in years. My first reaction was, Ha! See — racial politics — just like Memphis. And the article does point out how some black leaders are calling on one black candidate to drop out to help ensure that the mayor's office stays in African-American hands. But what struck me were the following paragraphs:
"And while blacks have been the majority population and voting bloc in the city for decades, the demographics have changed in recent years. A large voting bloc — residents in the city's public housing — was erased as Atlanta's crumbling projects were demolished over the past decade. And young professionals, black and white, have flocked to opportunity in the city.
"In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. In addition, blacks may no longer feel obligated to elect a black mayor ... a young generation of blacks — not native to Atlanta — may be staking their vote on matters more critical than race."
This information truly gives me hope. If Atlanta can finally get past racial politics, so can Memphis. If Atlanta can lure young professionals, black and white, back into the city, so can Memphis. If Atlanta can get beyond "racial-majority rules" politics, so can Memphis. Can't we?
Just as we look back and are appalled at the firehoses and bombings and injustices endured by those struggling for civil rights in the '60s, I think the next generation will look back and be appalled at the racial stupidity of this era, when the struggle was all about which skin color gets to wield political power. We can at least hope so.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...
The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, but there are many who will tell you that we're still fighting it and will find evidence of such in Jackson Baker's cover story about the current battle over General Nathan Bedford Forrest's statue and gravesite in Memphis ...