Blind Spots


On the day my mom turned thirteen, she didn’t leave the house.

A day earlier, ten miles away, James Earl Ray fired a rifle and assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. as the civil rights icon stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. As news spread, the city, and much of the country, were enveloped in riots. My mom spent her thirteenth birthday inside her home, her parents unsure how far the rioting would spread.

Along with John Kennedy’s assassination a few days earlier, this was the defining cultural moment of her childhood, what my generation would call her 9/11. While I was born elsewhere, my family’s own 9/11—a sort of prelude to the actual one—led my mom to move us down to Memphis. Down to the city where she was raised, the city where MLK was shot. A city that celebrated when, two years after our arrival, the Lorraine Motel was reborn as the National Civil Rights Museum.

A city that kept its children in the dark.


Yesterday on Twitter, a friend told a story about his wife, raised in a different Shelby County in the South, had been oblivious to her hometown’s shameful civil rights moments which struck a chord with me.

Growing up, I knew MLK was killed in Memphis. We learned about it in school, almost as a perverse point of pride—Here’s our city’s place in history! A world-changing event happened just down the street!—but we never learned about the consequences, about the effects it still had on the area to that day. The only reason I knew about the riots was because my mom told me, and all I really knew was that they happened and she was scared.

It wasn’t until I left the city that I gained perspective.


The University of Washington, Seattle, 2003.

In the back of one of the largest lecture halls on campus, an African-American professor who, coincidentally, had graduated from the same high school as me, nearly 2,000 miles away, showed the first footage I’d ever seen of the riots.

And I recognized the streets.

The blighted part of downtown Memphis, the part where attempts at “revitalization” had repeatedly failed, even as other cities around the country had reinvigorated/gentrified their urban cores. In that film, though, the storefronts looked full and vibrant, or at least like they had been until the front-of-frame strife had begun.

In that moment, the first moment I’d ever learned of Memphis’s place in history without the underlying, hidden sense of shame that tinged my childhood lessons, I understood how much the city’s present state was a direct reflection of its past, of that murder, 35 years earlier.

When class ended, I strode from the back of the hall to the front and thanked the professor for that day’s lesson—likely the first and last time that I ever did such a thing. I told her how I’d spent a dozen years in Memphis and nearly two decades on the planet, and that was the first time I’d ever seen what had happened all those years earlier. How suddenly, it all made sense. I left the room that day with a new perspective, and a terrifying realization how much of one the people I’d grown up with lacked.


I spent my first year and a half of high school at an all-boys Catholic school in Memphis. While it wasn’t the most privileged place in the city—nearly two decades later, I can name at least two more expensive high schools off the top of my head—it was still a shining beacon of all that was wrong with the upper class. Tuition was $8000 a year, but the parking lot was full of teenage boys chewing tobacco beside their mud-splattered Ford Broncos. Football, wrestling, and lacrosse reigned supreme. As a freshman, at a school of 1,000 students, I was one of about 20 Jewish boys—at least 15 of whom were freshman, more than half of whom, myself included, would transfer elsewhere well before graduation. Not all of us left because of anti-Semitism, and that wasn’t my only reason. But it was certainly a factor.

I’m pretty sure we Jews, with our two-percent-and-falling representation, outnumbered the African-Americans, though. I remember remarkably few non-white faces in the hallway, and remarkably white conversations. None more so, none more offensive, than the mid-January day in 1998 when I heard one boy ask another as a three-day weekend approached what he would be doing for “James Earl Ray Day.”

Thirty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered a dozen miles away from the school in which we stood, two white boys renamed the federal holiday in his honor after his assassin. What’s worse, it wasn’t the only time that day that I heard that joke.

And I said nothing.

I said nothing because I was slight in those days, or because I was meek, or because the idea of saying something simply never occurred to me. I said nothing because casual racism permeated the air in that place, as omnipresent as ties and khakis and references to St. John Baptist de La Salle. I said nothing because at least any expression of sexism or racism or other forms of hatred wasn’t anti-Semitism, which meant a moment of respite for me. I said nothing because I didn’t understand intersectionality in those days.

But mostly, I said nothing because I didn’t understand how we had gotten there.


Years after leaving Memphis, I finally made it to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It had been open for the final decade of my time in that city, but I had never gone. In school, we had gone on field trips to a beach in Mississippi, a cave system in central Tennessee, the state Capitol in Nashville, a chocolate factory, an allegedly haunted pre-Civil War mansion, a hotel known for the ducks that play in its central fountain, and two classes in my fourth grade year even visited the set of The Firm—mine wasn’t so lucky—but the National Civil Rights Museum somehow never warranted a visit.

Some sort of family gathering—a cousin’s bar mitzvah, I believe—provided the impetus for visiting the museum one day. I had flown in from Seattle, and the Florida contingent of my family, of whom only my mom’s older sister had ever resided in Memphis, wanted to go, so I tagged along. I was happy to take it all in after all that time.

I was disappointed.

We attended on a sunny afternoon, and inside, the dreary interiors held only a small smattering of visitors. Despite what should have been fascinating artifacts, including a replica of the bus Rosa Parks rode when she inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the preserved room where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed in his final days, the museum felt sterile inside. The site of the most impactful political assassination, and arguably the only martyring, of the 20th century had happened lacked any visceral qualities.

Somehow, I left the most important building in the entire city underwhelmed.

I apparently wasn’t alone in this feeling. In the years since, the museum has undergone significant renovations and upgrades, and the largely white board of directors was forced to integrate more African-Americans, proving that even a museum dedicated to progress isn’t necessarily progressive. I hear it’s a lot better now.

I can’t say the same for the city itself.


I haven’t set foot in Memphis in nearly five years at this point, by far the longest stretch of my life. I judge it from afar, even as my own, true hometown has its own struggles with racial justice. But at least here, I’m aware of the struggle. At least here, we have the conversation. At least here, we take to the streets and the city council chambers, asking what can be done.

A few years after I moved here, King County changed its namesake from William Rufus King to Martin Luther King, Jr., and updated its logo accordingly. It wasn’t until 2012 that Memphis finally renamed a street after him.

As time passes, wounds heal, but scars become more set as well. My grandmother used the term “colored people” until she died in 2003, while even typing that phrase on my blog, in quotes, brings me shame. But for now, we live in a world where my mom’s generation, the one caught in between, runs much of this country. Where people who were once terrified teenagers are now torn between a need to remember and a desire to forget, whose memories are scarred by just what the price of progress can be.

That’s why I never learned about the riots until I left. That’s why I never knew why downtown Memphis was so decrepit, why no attempt to make it nicer could ever stick. That’s why the National Civil Rights Museum was so sterile when I visited. That’s why progress comes in fits and starts, and isn’t always an upward path.

Lessons learned through fear are the hardest to teach.

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