Memphis is sending out some strangely mixed messages about its identity, its vitality, and its future by dwelling selectively on its past.
Consider a few stories and events that took place in two weeks at the end of March and beginning of April.
The Grove at Island Drive, a 217-unit apartment complex on Mud Island, sold for nearly $33 million to a New York pension fund. At $151,000 per unit, that was a record for Memphis apartments. Sounds like good news, eh?
Downtown Memphis condo sales also set a record in 2006. There were 464 sales, with an average size of 1,173 square feet and an average price of $206,513, according to the Center City Commission, which tracks the Chandler Reports. There are 1,571 more condos planned or under construction in a market where condos were basically nonexistent five years ago. Downtown Memphis has become an interesting, even hot, place to live.
More evidence is right outside the door of this magazine. On a gorgeous afternoon in early April, I left the office and saw two men studying a new 7,000-square-foot house going up across the street on the South Bluff. I walked over to introduce myself. One of them was wearing a Tennessee Titans T-shirt and a cap. I took him to be a worker. In fact, he was the owner, Dr. L.P. Gipson, a dentist. The other man was the architect, Ben Harris Jr. Both are black, as are several of their neighbors on this block of Tennessee Street where lots not much wider than a school bus go for $400,000 and up.
A racially diverse exclusive neighbor-hood three blocks from the National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis is not news, which may in itself be a sign of progress. Curiously, the big news that week was the lack of black faces on the rosters of professional baseball teams. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig christened the exhibition game at AutoZone Park between the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians the first annual Civil Rights Game, establishing another occasion for recalling segregation and the dark days of 1968.
Participants in a symposium at the museum reflected somberly about the declining number of black players since the days of Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. A study shows that black players account for 8.4 percent of the spots on major-league rosters, compared to 27 percent in 1975. Only two black players appeared much with the Memphis Redbirds last season, and only one with the St. Louis Cardinals.
This was the "news angle" to the Civil Rights Game and fodder for ESPN and columnists for several days. But did the 15,000 baseball fans at the game care about the paucity of black players any more than basketball fans at FedEx Forum care about the paucity of white players in the NBA?
It's understandable that Selig and Major League Baseball, following the lead of basketball commissioner David Stern and the National Basketball Association, want a marketing tie-in with Memphis and the civil rights era. The partnerships may well educate young people who might otherwise be only vaguely aware of the history of desegregation in sports. And it was a nice talking point for Selig, who, it was reported a few days later, made $14.5 million last year.
What's good for the image of big-league sports, however, is not necessarily good for the image of Memphis if it is identified as a Southern city still preoccupied with race. Nor is it good history. As Michael Honey writes in his new book Going Down Jericho Road , Dr. King was in Memphis in 1968 to help striking city sanitation workers making $1.60 an hour when they weren't being sent home on rainy days with no pay at all. The great campaign was about organized labor, not organized sports.
Yes, black professional baseball players are less common today than they were in 1968. But there are a lot more black dentists, architects, contractors, and owners of expensive houses in exclusive neighborhoods in Memphis than there were in 1968. A journeyman plumber or electrician can make a better living than a journeyman second-baseman in the minors. That's another story Memphis should be telling.