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Standing in Memphis

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday 2024

This past September, I attended the PEER conference in Memphis Tennessee for groups and activists advocating for equitable public school funding. The trip was more of a pilgrimage than I expected. The hotel where I stayed was very near the Lorraine Hotel where Rev. King was assassinated. We toured the Lorraine Hotel, now a civil rights museum, and during the stay we stopped at the Masonic Temple where Rev. King gave his last speech to the sanitation workers who were on strike. 

I was deeply touched to be in those spaces. It brought back many memories of that year when so much happened: Our first black teacher in my all-white hometown, the dark news of Dr. King’s assassination, followed shortly by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy whom I had just heard speak at Vanderbilt University, and the ongoing riots on the TV at night. 

Being at the Lorraine Hotel and the Masonic Temple felt like being on hallowed ground.

There has been much progress since that fateful year.  Black students enroll and graduate from colleges and universities that were still mostly off-limits then. Our first Black President, Barack Obama, was elected and served two terms, and this November, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, elected the largest Black Caucus in history, including Don Scott as the first Black Speaker of the House. But, several things about the PEER conference and the continuing work that needs to be done reminded me all too vividly of how much there is left to do. 

We heard from Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, the two black Tennessee legislators who had been expelled from the legislature for protesting gun violence in a school (They were re-elected). While there, we had dinner with the people of Earle, Arkansas, a small town whose public schools were under siege from Governor Huckabee and the conservative state legislature. Earle’s fight to save their schools from closure seemed all too reminiscent of the challenges faced in Dr. King’s day. 

So many political and educational leaders insist that education policies are data-driven. However, that claim is untrue if the data shows that we still have too many separate and unequal schools in 2024. The fact that 56 years after Dr. King’s death we still cannot say with any integrity that our schools are equitably funded or that Americans of color have the same access to home loans and healthy environments as white families, shows twenty-first century America stands as an embarrassing coda to Dr. King’s Christian ministry to our nation.

Here is the speech he gave at the Masonic Temple, the night before he died. He was sick and had not planned to appear, but there were so many people his aides went back to the hotel and asked him to come anyway. He did.

Standing in Memphis vividly brought home, we have much work to do before we can face ourselves and say we have brought Dr. King’s Dream to fruition and contend we are a place where all children have equal access to the American Dream. 


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