MEMPHIS, BEFORE AND AFTER – Martin Luther King Jr. was the most important kind of fighter.
This is a story about Memphis, Tennessee, United States of America, where King was murdered on April 4, 1968.
Memphis is much like many places, where both the good and the bad have refused to die. Much of the good was on display when Memphis hosted the Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson extravaganza in June of 2002. What would stand for years as the biggest pay per view event in history didn’t go off in glittery Hollywood, Vegas, or New York City. Memphis got the funk, and spread it around as part of the city’s extraordinary public relations achievement. Media members were given a card that pretty much got you into any of the city’s attractions.
The heaviest, most lasting impression of fight week had nothing to do with the bout itself, or Memphis culture, but like many things in this fascinating town, there was a twisting, tie –in along the Mississippi.
I have vivid memories of the scene inside The Pyramid, wincing in unwanted sympathy every time of the many times Lewis thudded in another right hand, until Tyson finally crumbled in bloody defeat. I can’t remember another time I heard Emanuel Steward shrieking in anywhere near as high a pitch, as Lewis fought like one of the best heavyweights in history.
We all know there are different types of history. Memphis history has guts, glory, and some fine, fine music, but sadness sits atop the ledgers of longevity.
Boxing images became inconsequential compared to standing on the balcony outside room 306 of the former Hotel Lorraine, now the National Civil Rights Museum, restored but unchanged from that horrible evening at 6:01pm, when King was martyred.
There was an excellent, extensive photo exhibition by Muhammad Ali’s longtime confidant Howard Bingham, highlighted by images from the Rumble in the Jungle, in conjunction with the Lewis-Tyson bout. The photographs were crisp and thought-provoking. Again, the entertainment-based gallery paled to the sad, stark realities of the museum, which chronicled the US civil rights struggle, horrors, and eventual progress. Except for two young black women, another white colleague and I were by ourselves. I felt a ton of guilt, by association alone. It was one of those times when you can hate one man for disgracing the rest. The women were sweethearts, saw our sadness, and made some small talk to provide a comfort level. I still felt communal shame. Hard to sit in a model of the Rosa Parks bus and avoid it.
King’s final public words show he knew what was coming. He said it was the glory of the Lord. “And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?…But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” King probably received death threats every day.
King also received the Nobel Peace Prize, among many other accolades. Prior to his assassination, which he understood was imminent, he stated that he’d rather his obituary omitted listing awards, to focus on his message. “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody that day to say that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody,” said King as he spoke of his priorities, and lack of fear. “Other shallow things will not matter.”
Maybe if the day’s law enforcement leaders had spent a bit of time and money to protect King, he’d still be around. Instead, he was spied on and sabotaged. In Memphis, police had King under surveillance from a fire station adjacent to his hotel and witnessed his murder. An undercover officer who ran across the street initiated first aid. Even if you can dismiss the probability of governmental evil involved, it’s disgraceful at best that the supposed elite intelligence of our nation was basically sitting on top of a fugitive, who went about killing someone while under the officers’ noses. Monday, January 20 has been designated a federal holiday since Ronald Reagan signed the order in 1983, effective in ‘86. It took 14 more years until every holdout state had recognized the holiday. That says more about Arizona, New Hampshire and Utah than it does about Memphis.
It would be great to say we’ve all subsequently made it to the mountaintop, but that would be a lie. The sick white brothers are still out there, and they’ve got just as many sick siblings, wearing many different skins. Meanwhile, Memphis remains high on the list of US murder and violent crime locales. Maybe there is enough color blind love in people of all ethnicities to make Dr. King’s dream a possibility. As long as most of us keep trying, maybe the rest will either fall in line or fall in time.
Memphis has a decent boxing scene, as reflected by last Friday’s Showbox telecast, with consistent club cards along the riverside. I’m betting there are very few sick brothers in those gyms or at those arenas.
King was never particularly noted as a boxing fan but I think he’d approve of such gatherings and enjoy them. I’ve seen times when a fight crowd comes just about as close to achieving equal, multi-cultural utopian kinship as our flawed species gets. There was a color line against black challengers decades ago, but it seems boxing established certain civil rights ahead of many other public forums.
It’s heartbreaking that King did not get the chance to enjoy triumphant sunset years like Nelson Mandela, or witness the inauguration of Barack Obama. It’s sad he couldn’t live to be at least a healthy 83 years old, and experience the soulful celebration that was Beale Street during Lewis-Tyson. For a few magic moments, you could dance on the packed pavement amidst blaring blues. It almost seemed like the promised land.
As great as the game may be, like most of us, boxing is still a shallow thing.
Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others.
Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.