TRANSLATION: MEMPHIS 

TRANSLATION: MEMPHIS

AN ACCEPTABLE EXCEPTION? There’s a fine line, it seems, between preserving aspects of a city’s history and trampling upon provisions intended to protect a citizenry’s freedom. Or so it seems at the moment, here in Memphis. A debate is currently raging over the logistics of just when, not to mention if, it’s appropriate to designate city funds to preserve a religious structure. Two lawsuits are now pending over the legality of a proposed $300,000 worth of grants, designated to restore two historical Black churches here in Memphis. Said churches include the First Baptist Beale Street and the Clayborn-Ball Temple AME church at Hernando and Pontotoc. The debate began several weeks ago when the aforementioned contribution was added to the city’s capital budget. The complicating factor in what might otherwise be a cut and dry case is whether said structure’s relationship to an historical era, specifically the civil rights era, can deem worthy an exception to laws intended to prevent the enforcement of a certain set of beliefs an acceptable exception. Try saying that ten times fast. On the one hand, I can understand the arguments against the grant. We are all too aware of the dangers of legislated spirituality. But in spite of the inherent legitimacy of that tenet of American freedom, the separation of church and state, we might be remiss in allowing the structures under scrutiny to crumble away into the netherworld of the forgotten past. The First Baptist Church Beale Street was the first brick church in Memphis built by and for Black worshippers, erected in the late-nineteenth century. The Clayborn-Ball Temple AME church, also erected in the late 1800’s, was the starting point for what turned out to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s last march before his murder in 1968. As such, it raises the question of whether there isn’t a reason they say there are exceptions to every rule. Is it not challenging enough that we have to live down the legacy of playing host to the assassination to one of the twentieth century’s most significant figures? It would serve us well to consider the message we might send to the rest of the nation if we allow the starting point of one of our contemporary history’s most important last stands to degrade to the point of being razed. This is especially worthy of some careful thought in light of the image-building going on here in Memphis. We are actively attempting to attract and retain creative talent based on our being a progressive urban center. But isn’t it the complexity, the struggles and victories of our past, that have gotten us this far? History is a funny thing--often painful to remember. And yet, what are the risks we run when we forget? In spite of the legal implications, in spite of the fact that the philosophy behind the separation of that secular and otherwise is intended to prevent the legislation of one’s beliefs, it doesn’t sound so progressive to allow one of the cornerstones of our city’s history to fade away. Of course, this isn’t an issue for which there’s an easy answer. It’s complicated, just as the era in which King staged his Poor People’s Campaign was complicated. But much like King’s cause, perhaps, complications don’t always imply that there isn’t something worth standing up for. Or in this case, maybe, something that should remain standing. As the citizens of Memphis we should, if nothing else, give this matter a bit of thought before making a decision that might be irreversible. Once something’s gone, you can’t get it back. And that, it seems, is something we should know all too well.

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