MLK Day in Memphis
Director of Community Impact, Ari Warmflash, recounts the team's experience as part of the King Day Celebrations on January 16, 2023 in Memphis.
Leading up to our January visit to Memphis I was nervous about holding an event on MLK Day. I had dutifully begun organizing events that honored King’s legacy in the area without stepping on the toes of anyone on the ground who was already planning to engage the Memphis community. So imagine my delight and surprise when, during a meeting with Dr. Noelle Trent, the Director of Interpretation, Collections & Education at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, invited us to not only be part of their community programming but also offered us a 10 minute slot on the community stage!
That day we woke up early and got down to the museum by 9 o’clock thinking we would start to set up before people arrived at 10am. By the time we showed up there was already a line to get into the museum that wrapped around the block. It was a gray and rainy morning but people were out and ready for a day of remembrance and celebration.
We were lucky to find our table was dry in the tent and nestled between two incredible Memphis theater organizations: Hattiloo Theatre, the only freestanding Black repertory theater in five surrounding states, and Cazateatro, a bilingual theater group that entertains local audiences in Spanish & English.
Team members Marjike Silberman & Dr. Rebecca Schorsch engaging with young people at the table
We quickly set up our table with In[HEIR]itance Project stickers, palm cards, and, as always, questions for the community. Visitors to the table had the chance to engage with a few different questions: If Memphis was a person what would be their biggest strength? Their biggest flaw? What is the music that represents Memphis? And, as many who have participated with us before know; what is one word or phrase you would use to describe Memphis?
One of the crowd favorites quickly became our impromptu gallery wall, which featured the designs of young artists who answered the questions; what does it feel like to live in Memphis or what does it feel like to honor Dr. King? Not only did we get a beautiful array of images, but we were reminded about the importance of engaging even the youngest voices as participants in their own records of the story. As our gallery wall grew, so too did interest from other young artists, from the adults who accompanied them, and from the volunteers at the event who would stop to tell us how great it was to see art on the walls of the big tent.
Midway through the day, it was our turn to perform on the community stage. It was the perfect place to highlight local artists we had begun collaborating with in Memphis, and to give them the mic (literally) to share work inspired by their city. There is an abundance of talent in Memphis, and the three incredible artists we featured were, Franceschi, a rapper, Kiña del Mar, a singer/songwriter, and Writeous Soul, a poet and infectious community leader. The energy in the tent during all three performances was exhilarating. Audiences nodded their heads, snapped their fingers, and quickly began singing along with the refrain “I Love Memphis” from Kiña’s song.
Local artists & IHP Collaborating Artists (L-R); Kina del Mar, Denise Manning, Writeous Soul, Franceschi & Ellie Kahn.
There are moments in this job, where I am outside of my body looking in and this day was one of them. I saw myself in the midst of the energy and commotion and gathering of people committed to hope, and change, and to showing up for their community. I was struck, in that moment and frequently, by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. How unbelievably lucky am I to do this work? To share space with people, to learn from them and hold a container open for whatever they want to pour in. Over conversations with multiple team members that day, we all shared that feeling - an all-consuming moment of mindfulness that allowed us to be WITH community, on a day that honored the struggles of building one.
This work asks me to grapple constantly with the resounding impacts of history on life today. It has come up in several rooms throughout our process as we discussed Dr King, not to forget the context of the man in his time. The year that King was assassinated, he was one of the most highly criticized leaders in the country and many considered him “the most hated man in America.” While he had his ardent supporters, the court of public opinion was often against him, especially in his final years as he supported the Poor People’s Campaign, and later the Sanitation Workers Strike, unifying people beyond their race and preaching against the injustices of capitalism. It is easy 55 years after this assassination, to think about Dr. King in terms of his iconic speeches and enduring quotes - but as we have often heard doing this work, there’s more to a story than the narrative that is most often told.
Dr. King took care of people regardless of who they were - he believed in the inherent humanity of peoplehood and the importance of a phrase as simple as “I AM A MAN.” Memphis is a city that embodies that care - it takes care of its own and refuses to forget about Its history, despite the way some would like for it to move on. Spending King Day in Memphis was a gift, and we continue to honor the grit and grind that makes Memphis so special, and makes this work so meaningful.
Local & IHP Team Members gather in one final huddle to celebrate the success of the day