When Memphis cared

Martin Luther King was assassinated on 4 April, 1968 in Memphis, the city where I was born.  There were many in Memphis — indeed, throughout the US — who were insufficiently distraught by King’s death, believing that it was the fate one might expect after a career of agitation on so sensitive a subject as race in America.  King has become a nearly universally celebrated figure since then, as have Muhammad Ali, John Lewis, and many others from the black civil rights movement, but it is easy to forget that when the struggle was live there were many who saw menace where we now see simply courage.

I left Memphis at age three and have never returned but my family has remained connected to the place through Jean and John T. Fisher, the handsomest and most gracious couple anyone has ever known.  John T. was a prominent businessman in Memphis and, on the Sunday after King was killed, organized a rally called “Memphis Cares” in support of racial reconciliation and, in part, to demonstrate that the white community — or, at the very least, parts of it — in Memphis also believed in a future of black civil rights more just than in the past.   There were too few like him, to be frank about it, and he lost a great many friends who disagreed with him on this.  “Memphis Cares” is the kind of thing that can be dismissed today as merely symbolic and there is no question that it was black civil rights leaders themselves who took the greater risks and bore the greater punishment.  But it should be remembered that there is a particular courage to a sacrifice that is entirely voluntary: John T. and other white leaders in places like Memphis could have stayed quiet.  There was no gain and only cost to them to speak out as they did, when they did, to take what was seen by many at the time as not ‘their side’ rather than, as it was, an attempt to make a better and more true America.  But he was right and they were wrong and, knowing John T., I doubt he ever wavered.

John T. Fisher died a few weeks ago, on 30 December 2011.  He was 77.  This is an interview with him from a few years ago in which he gives a characteristically modest accounting of his role at the time.



This is the last speech Martin Luther King ever gave, the night before he was killed, in which he talks about having ‘seen the mountaintop’ and adding ‘I might not get there with you.’  But the essence of the speech is less prophetic and more profound: ‘All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper…[and] somewhere I read, of the freedom of assembly.  Somewhere I read, of the freedom of speech.  Somewhere I read, that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.’  A fairly undeniable request, one would think, though there were many who wished to deny it.



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