Thanks to a spot that runs regularly on the local Air America radio affiliate, we learn that some or another major media source -- we forget which, but we were impressed -- declared Memphis "the greatest American place" back in 1998. If we are, it is because the conditions of our existence have historically compelled a mingling of cultures, resulting most noticeably in a series of glorious musical heritages. We use the plural on purpose, having heard music historiographer David Evans of the University of Memphis discourse convincingly on the separate musical streams -- ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B, rockabilly, rock-and-roll, and more -- that have issued into the world from Memphis.
But our greatness in the future will depend on how well we achieve a synthesis of our populations in other ways, especially politically and socially. Like the rest of America, Memphis and Shelby County are now past that era in which the words "black" and "white" adequately describe ethnic variety. We are home now to Asians and Hispanics in truly significant numbers.
It is this last fact, along with the rough balance of Caucasians and African Americans in our mix, that made the honor conferred on us this past weekend by Major League Baseball so appropriate. In becoming the site of the first annual Civil Rights Game and, according to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the likely permanent home of the game, Memphis achieved both a signal distinction and the opportunity to become an annual example to mankind.
That opportunity is a burden, too, of course. We may be currently notorious in the eyes of the state and nation for instances of public corruption, but few other American jurisdictions, we venture, have achieved an effective symmetry in government to the extent that we have.
Consider: The current congressman in Memphis' 9th congressional district, Steve Cohen, is a white who won a hefty majority last year against a black opponent with a famous last name. The current mayor of Shelby County, where Caucasians still dominate on Election Day, is A C Wharton, an African American who won a lopsided majority in 2004 over a well-known white member of the County Commission.
A white candidate, City Council member Carol Chumney, has gained enough currency in Memphis' black precincts to have finished ahead of Memphis' incumbent black mayor, Willie Herenton, in the first major poll of city voters. Meanwhile, a significant number of influential whites are involved in the mayoral effort of another candidate, former MLGW head Herman Morris, who is African American.
Racial issues still flare up in local government. The current controversy over a proposed second Juvenile Court judge is a case in point, though even that issue has as much to do with reaching an effective balance between the county's municipal and governmental jurisdictions as anything else.
We still argue at the table over who gets the best seat or the first cut of meat. But we sit down together, and we're used to it. If we can take the next major step and stabilize population flow in an environment that is economically secure for all, we will, in fact, deserve to be called a great American place.