Memphis: Mecca on the Mississippi

By Norment, Lynn | Ebony, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Memphis: Mecca on the Mississippi


Norment, Lynn, Ebony


MEMPHIS is known as "home of the blues" and "the birthplace of rock `n' roll." It is famous for its pork barbecue, its history as a cotton capital, and for Beale Street.

Memphis is also known as the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, as a city that symbolized racism over the decades and racial strife during and long after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

But the city overlooking the mighty Mississippi River is much more than a music mecca and the scene of the tragic event for which it will always be infamous. A closer look at the mesmerizing city reveals that Memphis has evolved into a cosmopolitan metro area of 1.2 million people where race relations have improved considerably in the past decade and where a large number of African-Americans wield power on the political front. Increasingly, Blacks also are gaining power in the Memphis business community.

After decades of failed attempts, in 1990 Memphians finally elected a Black mayor--Willie W. Herenton, Ph.D., who formerly served as school superintendent. Since he took residence on the 5th floor of City Hall with an office overlooking the Mississippi and the picturesque "M" bridge that stretches to Arkansas, the city has experienced an economic and cultural renaissance. The once-deserted downtown is now bustling with businesses, residents and tourists. The Main Street Trolley transports riders from a booming Beale Street along the downtown mall past City Hall and Mud Island River Park and on to the Pyramid, an impressive 32-story stainless steel landmark that houses a 22,500-seat arena. It is the city's tribute to the ancient Egyptian capital from which Memphis took its name.

The city also finally has landed a major sports franchise; the NBA's Grizzlies moved from Vancouver, Canada, and will begin its second season in the Pyramid this fall. (Memphians are delighted that Jerry West, who is noted for building the L.A. Lakers into a major NBA force, has been named the Grizzlies' president of basketball operations.) A new stadium is being built adjacent to the Beale Street entertainment district. A few blocks away, the Memphis Redbirds draw thousands of East Memphians and suburbanites downtown for Triple A baseball games at the spiffy new AutoZone Ballpark across the street from the historic Peabody Hotel with its parading ducks. There is also Peabody Place, a multiplex of shops, hotels, offices, restaurants, entertainment venues, and residences. Several Black entrepreneurs have businesses in Peabody Place, including Isaac Hayes, who has a restaurant that features live music and a shop that sells his gourmet sauces.

"Downtown was desolate when I became mayor," says Dr. Herenton, who is ending his third four-year term in office. "Memphis has undergone a tremendous metamorphosis in regard to Black political empowerment. I think it is fair to say that the racial divide has been ameliorated substantially under our administration. There is growing appreciation for diversity and inclusion of African-Americans in high political positions, in corporate leadership, in just the whole fabric of Memphis. When I took office, I talked about Memphis being transformed from being part of the 'Old South,' that we were going to create a new Southern city. Memphis is now part of the `New South.'"

The mayor and city leaders are still ebullient after hosting the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson bout at the Pyramid last spring. "We pulled that off with splendor," he says, adding that the boxing event drew 400 international media professionals and thousands of big-spending visitors to Memphis and delivered an economic punch of $25 million to $50 million.

In addition to exerting power and influence from the mayor's office, African-Americans dominate the City Council (seven of 12 members are Black, including president Rickey Peete), the Shelby County Commission (six of 13 are Black), and the Memphis School Board, where Blacks hold seven of nine seats. …

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