Memphis, 1993: a dream deferred? In aftermath of King's death, blacks are divided on their progress 25 YEARS AFTER THE KING ASSASSINATION

April 04, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A quarter- century ago, Tarib-Karim Muhammad was one of the so-called hotheads on that night in downtown Memphis. He shouted "Black Power" and defiantly waved a stick in the air, walking in a crowd of demonstrators led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Muhammad paid dearly for his passions. Police smashed him with billy clubs, drumming his skull to the unholy music of screams and breaking glass. But the greater price would be paid by Dr. King a week later, 25 years ago today. An assassin's bullet killed him as he stood on a motel balcony, only a few blocks from where the demonstration had come to grief.

From then on, Dr. Muhammad will tell you, it's been downhill all the way if you're black and live in Memphis.

"Memphis is like a time capsule. It hasn't made any progress since the death of Dr. King," says Dr. Muhammad, who expresses similar opinions five times a week on a local radio talk show. "Memphis is the most racially polarized city that you're going to find in America. . . . All of this tension has built up, and if anything ever breaks out, I don't want to be here."

Some disagree and will argue vigorously that opportunities for blacks have never been greater in Memphis.

The Chamber of Commerce will gladly cite statistics to make the case: There are almost four times as many black-owned businesses now as there were in 1968, for instance, and blacks hold about 29 percent of local elected positions, including the mayor's office, compared with 1 percent then. The city also has a strong black middle class, entrenched in sprawling suburban neighborhoods of big homes and riding mowers.

For every prophet of doom there seems to be one of hope, such as the Rev. N. Charles Thomas, an administrator with the national headquarters of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who also marched with Dr. King a week before he died. "It may be ever so small," Mr. Thomas says, "but there is a growth in the community of understanding that we live together or we die alone."

But even in the most optimistic corners of the black community there is a consensus that, at least in some ways, Dr. King's death is a wound that won't stop bleeding, still taking casualties in leadership, focus, unity and momentum.

Exhibit A is the widening rift between the old-line leadership of the black clergy and Muslims such as Dr. Muhammad, as both sides compete for the attention of the young.

It is a struggle mirrored in virtually every poor urban neighborhood where crime and drug use are on the rise, whether in Memphis or Baltimore. Each side claims to know the way out of despair and frustration. Each invokes the legacy of Dr. King.

If you want an indicator of who's winning among the young, just count the number of baseball caps with an "X" emblazoned on the front, in honor of Malcolm X, the Muslim leader who was assassinated in 1965.

"The important thing now is to look at where Dr. King was headed," says Joan Nelson, 47, co-owner of a local company, Heritage Tours, that specializes in visits to black history sites. "He was headed toward Malcolm X, and that's where the young people need to look. If you're looking for where the civil rights movement went, you can look over into the Democratic Party, because that's where they went. They think the system is the answer."

She scoffs at the idea that greater black representation has been some sort of gain, calling it "the illusion of inclusion." The offices have been won by default, she says, as whites have deserted central Memphis for the suburbs. The city's population is about 55 percent black.

Not that Muslims haven't sought office. Dr. Muhammad ran for mayor in the most recent election. He says he withdrew upon realizing that his religion was scaring away potential contributors.

"Dr. King has been pimped," Dr. Muhammad maintains. "A few people have lined their pockets at the expense of him and the movement, and nobody has gotten anything out of it except for a handful of people. There's been a lot of sellout up and down the line."

The Rev. James A. Jordan, 72, who was among the downtown clergymen who invited Dr. King to Memphis the week he was shot, snorts when he hears such talk.

"They [the Muslims] honor him," he says, "but I hope you notice that a lot of these old blacks who have money and who are Muslims are bringing up Malcolm X to put him alongside Martin Luther King, and in doing so they're trying to kill Dr. King's image."

Tourists and police

Mr. Jordan's church, First Baptist, is on Beale Street, and its neighborhood is as instructive as any in showing what has happened to the old core of Memphis' black community.

Once Beale Street was a bustling place, not only a jazz and

blues haven for performers such as W. C. Handy, but also a social center for fancy parties and night life. By the time Dr. King came along, it was a natural site for civil rights marches.

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