Archive for the ‘MLK 50’ Category

This is the second post in a series of three about our trip to Memphis. The trip to Memphis was organised by the International Office at Northwestern University in coordination with Serve 901 – an organization that aims to provide students with an opportunity to engage and serve the community during spring/summer/winter breaks. In addition to community service, panel discussions, there is also plenty of opportunities to explore the wonderful city of Memphis. Robert Gordon said about Memphis, ” Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does”. In the course of one week that we spent in the city, I learnt how true this statement is.

Towards the end of my last post, I talked about the various facets of injustice and how they have impacted the lives of people. A majority of the population in Memphis are African-Americans. Hence there has been a history of racial discrimination and segregation in the city that continues to be present even today. Consider this, the Confederates (comprising of white supremacists who wanted to expand slavery and slave trade) lost against the union in 1865. Yet, after more than a century after the event, statues of Confederate leaders continued to be present in public places. This is something that can be unsettling for anyone and even more so for the African-American community subjected to the cruelty of slave trade. A recent movement ‘TakeEmDown901″ was launched by the activist Tami Sawyer to ensure the removal of these statues. Thinking back to India, I knew what had been done to the statues of British rulers in India. A lot of these statues (especially in Delhi) were taken down in the post-colonial era.What I didn’t know until just now was that they were left to rot/covered with sand and mud. Now, I am not quite sure if they were intentionally left to rot or it was just because public works in India are never carried out to completion and generally left half-done. Either way, one could symbolically look at the rotting of these statues as a way of disregarding or shaming the colonial rulers for what they did.

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With Tami Sawyer at Teach For America -Memphis

We had an opportunity to interact with Tami Sawyer who is also involved with Teach for America (TFA). She pointed out problems that exist in the education sector. Public schools in Memphis, even though are not racially segregating in their policy, have become nearly exclusive for either the white people or for people of colour. There is very little racial diversity in the schools. And we saw this happening in all the three school that we visited while in Memphis. This is, in fact, a problem that is present in several American cities and is by and large a consequence of the segregation in residential areas of African – Americans and the white Americans. The African Americans live in the inner areas of Memphis around downtown Memphis whereas the white people live in the outer periphery and the suburbs of the city. This segregation automatically has led to little to almost no diversity in schools. I think lack of socio-economic diversity is a problem in Indian cities too. The schools in Indian cities that we go to are mostly private schools and the tuition fee determines the socio-economic status of the students’ families. It bothers me now, that while growing up, I never got a chance to interact (on an everyday basis) with kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private schools.

Another fact that a lot of activists and volunteers in education are concerned about is that most African-American kids are taught by teachers who are white. This can impact the way a child thinks and lead to a deep-rooted belief that African-Americans are not as capable as the white Americans. Special programs that impart training to teachers on culturally relevant pedagogy are being conducted in by TFA-Memphis. Looking back at the situation in India, while we have agricultural universities and training centres for farmers in rural India, education about other rural vocations such as pottery, fishing etc also needs emphasis. I feel we lack a system where a child of a farmer/fisherman/potter is made to feel comfortable and culturally relevant to the society.

Something that really shook me while we were visiting an elementary school was the following incident. On the day we were visiting, the school had a scheduled emergency drill. This drill was not a fire drill or a general evacuation and safety drill. This was a drill that taught students and teachers to respond in case a person with a gun was either in the school or in the vicinity. Recent incidences of gun violence in the US has prompted the school to begin this practice. I cannot imagine what impact this might have on a 5-6-year-old kid. A few members of our group even noticed some kids who were visibly stressed out and anxious throughout the drill. It is deeply unsettling that we live in times where there is clearly no place, not even schools where kids can feel safe. And this is true not just in the US but so many countries around the world – Syria, for instance, where young kids are deprived of education, happiness and safety that they are entitled to.

The thing with Memphis is, despite all these problems, people have embraced the city. A lot of people from different parts of Tennessee and even from other places in the US have moved to Memphis to make a difference to this city. Every single Memphian we met and interacted with was proud to be in the city to make it a better place. An example of that is the revival of the Crosstown Concourse building with a vision for focus on healthcare, education and arts. Several non-profit organisations such as Serve901, TFA, now use this space for their activities. Clean Memphis is another organization that works with the vision that a cleaner city helps reduce crimes and promotes a sense of pride in the community. They organize clean-up drives and beautification in popular places such as the Civil Rights Museum in addition to cleaning up community parks and school grounds.

I am only quoting here some of my experiences in Memphis, however, every moment that I spent in volunteering activities taught me something. Through the end of my stay, I realised that justice, socio-economic status, education are all intertwined and need to be tackled individually as well as collectively in order to make a difference. This is true not just in Memphis or in the US but everywhere in the world. Let’s take the example of Dharavi in Mumbai, India. There are a huge number of non-profit organisations that work for the well-being and upliftment of the people there and yet there is a long way to go before we can make a visible impact. Nonetheless, we hear very often about great success stories and start-ups that come up from Dharavi.

Many of us, including me, are ambitious about what we want to do with our careers and lives and may perhaps not be able to dedicate ourselves full-time to volunteering activities. However, in the one week that I spent in Memphis, I realised that by devoting a small portion of my time to volunteering and community service, I can definitely make a difference. The saying, “Little drops of water make a mighty ocean” never made more sense to me than it does now.

Something else that Memphis is very proud of is the amazing music that has originated from this city. Memphis is the birthplace of three very popular genres of music – blues, rock and roll, and soul music. B.B King, W.C Handy, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding all started out in Memphis. Needless to say, Memphians love good music and I’ll talk more about music and it’s importance in the culture of Memphis in my next post. Also watch out for a snippet on Mike Minnis, an urban farmer who left us all amazed not only at his farming practices but also with his general philosophy on life!

PS: On the suggestion of our group leaders from Northwestern International Office, while we were in Memphis, we watched a documentary called 13th that talks about justice, race and incarceration in the US. It also talks about the role of big corporations in the prison-industrial complexes in the US and their motivation for profit that has caused over-incarceration in order to keep prisons full all the time. I would recommend anybody interested in these themes to watch it!

PPS: In case you are wondering about 901, it’s the area code for Memphis! I actually found that out only midway through our week-long stay there 😛

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MLK 50

Posted: April 5, 2018 in Civil Rights, IOinMemphis2018, MLK 50, Travel

Lorraine Motel, MLK 50

Today, 4th April 2018 marks 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Lorraine Motel has now been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum and tracks the history of African-Americans from the 1800s when they were brought into the US as slaves, through the period of reconstruction, racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and culminates in Room 306 where Dr King was assassinated in 1968.

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to visit Memphis about a week ago and spend close to 5  hours in the museum. I plan on writing a series of 2-3 posts covering various aspects of the trip; the visit to the museum was a revelatory experience in itself,  I have therefore devoted an entire post to it.

On entering the museum, the first thing one would notice is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and the wall beside the stIMG_20180330_125719.jpgatue that has the famous quote by Gandhi, ” Be the change you want to see in the world”. It is widely known that Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of non-violence deeply influenced Dr King and led him to use similar ideas during the Civil Rights Movement.  Dr King embarked on a trip to India in 1959 after the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956), considered as the first large-scale non-violent demonstrations against racial segregation. He said, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation”, in his address for All India Radio on his last evening in India.

The museum begins with slave trade that transported millions of Africans to the US under the most inhuman conditions. Here is a photo that shows an advertisement for a slave and brings out (arguably) the worst way to treat a fellow human being. At this point, I was reminded of my visit to the cellular jail in Port Blair where Indians were deported as forced labours in inhuman conditions, often starved and deprived of most basic needs by the Britishers. Throughout the time I spent at the museum, I would be reminded of several incidents from the Nationalist movements for freedom in India.

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