You could fit what I know about the south into a thimble. It was, for my father and then me, a place where we would not voluntarily go. Yet here I was in Memphis for the second time in six months on April 4, 2018.
Bearing witness to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, I had the obligation and opportunity to think through my own understanding of Dr. King’s legacy. I reflected on the current social and political climate, I tried to apply lessons from the struggle he fought to our struggle for racial and economic justice today. I tried at least, and I’m not sure I have answers. What I did do was spend a lot of time thinking through my own history and participation (and sometimes lack thereof) in quest for racial justice. Within this frame of my personal history, I share with you some of what I thought about during my time in Memphis.
Growing up in Arizona, in a mixed, but largely white and Latino neighborhood with parents of different races (white and black)—Jim Crow and slavery were scary, terrible things that happened predominantly in the South—a place where my father was adamant about never setting foot.
I remember him telling me, “I drove through the south once, and I’m not doing it again.” I understood this to mean that racism is everywhere, but the racism in the south is pernicious, and best avoided.
I learned what most children of the 1980s learned about Dr. King—he was a great man, who used nonviolent methods to fight for racial justice. At the time his message was dangerous, and he fought hard. We never talked about his fight for economic justice. At all.
Living in Arizona, which did not have a state holiday in his name at the time, I understood that while he was championed as a hero in history books, there was an element of this man’s legacy that many white people would not honor. Like I said, I knew racism was everywhere, and the halls of the Arizona Legislature was included. We marched—as a 9 year old child in 1990, I marched for a state holiday in his name, to have his legacy embedded into the fabric of our state. We didn’t get it that year. And when we did in 1992, I did not know the full history of why. It was the threat of the NFL to reschedule a planned Super Bowl that spurred action in the business community to pave the way for a ballot measure. When will justice matter more than profit?
My white mother was disowned by her father for marrying my father. She raised two mixed/black children in a time where legal interracial marriage was brand new (Loving v. Virginia, 1967 versus Riggs + Scott, 1970). Civil rights was not abstract—though I was born 13 years after Loving, I am and was distinctly aware that mixed race couples were very transgressive—in both white and black communities. Trying to fit in with peer groups through racial affiliation was difficult: I wasn’t black enough culturally, and my skin was not white.
Growing up mixed has allowed me some distance from the struggle for racial and economic justice—a privilege that becomes more and more apparent as I age. But at the National Civil Rights Museum, I looked at images of and heard voices of those who went on the freedom rides. Blacks who had had enough of maintaining social order (under implicit and explicit threats of violence) and put their bodies on the line, becoming subjects of state-sanctioned violence for the purpose of advancing justice. I also saw whites, who were willing use their privilege and become subjects of state-sanctioned violence for the purpose of advancing justice. All of whom understood that “no one is free until we are all free.”
I think now about the carceral state, the amalgamation of wealth for the 1% and how even with the rise of bi- or multi-racial children and families, we still over police, criminalize and under educate black and brown children. In Memphis, as I reflected on what progress has been made since Dr. King was murdered, I thought about how we are still in the streets, marching for lives, marching to be heard.
In 1990, I marched to get Dr. King a holiday—a day where we reflect on his life. I’m left with the idea that instead of a day, I need to approach each day as another day in a lifelong march to justice—an opportunity to make change in the systems that shape our lives as inhabitants of the United States. How do I march with purpose today?
This post was written by Krista Scott. Krista the Senior Director for Child Care Health Policy at Child Care Aware of America. The thoughts expressed in this blog are her own.