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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2002/ 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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Memphis in black, white and blues | MEMPHIS, Tenn. Memphis boasts that it's the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll, but it's the ghosts of two famous men that hover close over the revival of the city that Time magazine not so long ago dismissed as a decaying Mississippi River backwater.

Elvis Presley died in 1977 at Graceland, once a plantation house at the edge of town that has become a shrine for tourists from everywhere, who come to celebrate the music that Elvis made by mixing some Gospel, a little country and a lot of Delta rhythm and blues.

Martin Luther King died in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, just off South Main, that was then a seedy street of flophouses and boarded-up storefronts. The motel has become part of the National Civil Rights Museum, where visitors can see the spot where he fell and the rifle that killed him, and be reminded of his powerful poetic rhetoric drawing on the universal themes of the Gospel.

Memphis is a very changed Southern city today, drawing thousands of visitors, black and white, who arrive as pilgrims to mix and mingle easily in pursuit of the music and the memories.

Visitors can take the streetcar line, restored after a 60-year absence, down South Main to shops and art galleries; and Beale Street, where W.C. Handy wrote his classic "St. Louis Blues" standing at the counter of P. Wee's Saloon, is back, throbbing late into the night with the blue notes that made Memphis famous.

The riverfront is alive with restaurants and hundreds of new loft apartments, many with spectacular views of the Mississippi and the Arkansas cotton fields beyond. It all gives the appearance of how, as Martin Luther King famously said, things were meant to be.

Beale Street seems to a Memphis visitor to be a long way from the world where the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton hang out, looking for slights at the barbershop. "Barbershop," if you've missed the controversy, is the hit movie, written and directed by blacks with blacks in the starring roles as earnest, irreverent, arming and disarming characters, joshing and joking in a barbershop in inner-city Chicago, as if it's party time.

The moviemakers, like the party-goers on Beale Street, are confident in the here and now, and let one of the characters poke a little fun at Martin Luther King's reputed sexual appetite. Eddie the barber disses the icon in hip-hop vernacular as "a ho." He jokes that Rosa Parks, the heroine of the Montgomery bus boycott that created Martin Luther King, won celebrity simply by being too tired to leave the "white" seats to walk to the back of the bus. Jesse Jackson is a target of fun, too (which may be the point of the preacher's demand for cuts in the movie). None of the fun is the point of view of the movie, but it does suggest the liberation of robust black humor.

The liberation of Memphis belies as well the predictions of doom and disaster that accompanied Martin Luther King's last campaign in Memphis. Those predictions sound as silly and childish to modern ears as the '50s criticism of Elvis as "Elvis the pelvis." Segregation is gone and almost forgotten, but not the graciousness.

The mayor of Memphis, like 60 percent of his constituents, is black and so is the city's congressman. But so, too, is the mayor of surrounding Shelby County, which is as white as the city is black. He won by a margin approaching a landslide. "His election," wrote Kenneth Neill in Memphis magazine, "marks the first occasion in these parts when a major political office has been won by a black candidate when the electorate has been majority white."

All is not perfect, as if all ever could be. The city, like so many others in both North and South, has been hollowed out by white flight to the suburbs, and the struggle to reclaim the core has not been easy. A new streetcar line out Madison Avenue is nearing completion, but the enormous Baptist Medical Center that was to have been its destination has moved 15 miles to the eastern (white) suburbs, leaving an abandoned block of brick and glass that nobody wants, even as a gift.

Some priorities are puzzling. The new Pyramid arena on the riverfront is to be abandoned for a newer $300 million arena for a professional basketball team only a few blocks away. The public schools are struggling and mostly black, and the private schools are mostly - but by no means all - mostly white. Nevertheless, Memphis is a testimonial to what can happen when a decaying backwater decides it wants to be mainstream.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS