As a native, life-long Arizona resident, I knew moving to the South would involve some culture shock. The food is different, the dialect has longer vowel sounds, and people do everything a little slower than the rest of the world. That was all expected, and did take some getting used to, but I acclimated. What caught me by surprise was the rampant racism –appearing in both overt and covert ways throughout the city. Workplaces around Memphis, still segregated churches and places of worship, and neighborhoods are all evidence of life under “separate by equal.
The public schools look a little worse for the wear from the outside, the lunch program is dreadful, and class sizes are astronomically high. Kids who aren’t achieving at the “honors” level are quickly corralled into classrooms for daily glorified babysitting. It is not an effective learning environment. Though some of the Memphis City Schools have stepped up their game, and non-profits and private donors are pouring in money, the overall situation is still grim.
Private schools look extremely different: manicured lawns, statues of their respective saints, a chapel all seen from the street. They accept only the brightest applicants, and those who can pay the steep tuition. From the street, drivers can see printed signs boasting multiple National Merit Finalists at the school.
“What am I supposed to do? Those public schools just aren’t safe. My child would never learn there,” is the cry of hundreds of parents.
Activists and organizers worked tirelessly so that situations like the unequal opportunities in Memphis education would become a thing of the past. Even though segregation is illegal and Brown v. Board revoked separate but equal, the gap between the predominantly white affluent class and the predominantly African-American lower class is growing wider every year because of a failed schooling system.
Organizations who are working to overcome the difficulties presented by the school systems are met with problems with deeper roots than ineffective staff and poor quality food. There is still deep-seeded hatred and racism in Memphis. It still resides in both sides of the argument: in a group of people that feels oppressed and marginalized, and in a group that still cannot release feelings and attitudes of supremacy and privilege.
What will it take to move past such a tumultuous history of civil rights activists in the city? How long before the Civil Rights Movement and the Sanitation Workers' strike can actually become history?