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Yes, Memphis can!

As I arrived at the Cook Convention Center on Monday about 9:30 a.m., I could feel an unusual energy in the building borne out of a city beginning to truly feel good about itself. “Your past does not determine your future.”
Vashti Taylor, Salutatorian, Booker T. Washington Class of 2011

 Bernal E. Smith II

As I arrived at the Cook Convention Center on Monday about 9:30 a.m., I could feel an unusual energy in the building, not one borne of the fact that the president of the United States was arriving for a visit, and not one borne out of the excitement of a group of seniors graduating high school, but one of a city beginning to truly feel good about itself, a city gaining momentum, finding its swagger, ready to get its “swag on,” if you will.  

And that swagger was prominent. Understanding the importance of the moment and the international spotlight on our city, especially following the surprise success of our beloved Memphis Grizzlies and the impact of the 70-year-level floods, everyone seemed to be stepping with a bit more confidence, a bit more pride and positive energy.  

The two-plus hours before President Barack Obama stepped from behind the stage curtains gave plenty of time for observation and interaction. As I visited with friends and associates I observed that “swag” throughout the room.

Memphis experienced a shining moment on May 16, 2011, one that said we can realize our potential, rise to the occasion and be great.  Better yet, it demonstrated that we are capable of achieving that greatness and are deserving of all that comes with it. We must sustain it.  

Memphis, something special is happening in our city and I challenge us not to miss it!  For years, Memphians have lost sight of what young Miss Taylor expressed in her speech. We’ve looked back at our past and on our current circumstances and said we aren’t, we can’t and even worse, we won’t.

We’ve maintained an inferiority complex, one that said we weren’t good enough or big enough, that there is not enough to do and nothing to see.  Somehow it became commonplace for us to be our own worse critics and, in some cases, our worse enemy, seemingly without the resolve to do anything about it, until now.  Until this group of young people stood up and said Memphis deserves the best, Memphis can be on the world stage, Memphis can compete with anybody, anywhere and win!  Yes Memphis can!

We experienced a potential “game-changing” moment for the psyche and direction of our city and it was led largely by a prodigious group of young African-American students. Students from the “hood” – Cleaborn Homes, Foote Homes and South Memphis – that were bright, ambitious, bold, articulate and insightful in their efforts and resolve. Students who understood something that our city has failed to understand for years, that we can have a tremendously bright future despite a not-so-bright past. That in spite of situations and circumstances we can be great, if we make up our minds to do so and take the necessary steps to ensure the destiny we desire. To paraphrase the quote by Booker T. Washington used by Christopher Dean in his introduction of President Obama, it is character not circumstances that make a man – or a woman – or a community – or a city.

Monday, May 16, 2011, marked one of Memphis’ proudest and most historic days, as the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack H. Obama, visited our fair city to impart words of wisdom to the graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School.  

Certainly there is much irony and symbolic meaning in the first African-American duly elected President of the United States coming to Memphis, a city that’s 65 percent African American, a city historically plagued with racial strife, the city where 40 years before President Obama’s historic election in 2008, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  

That this generation’s most significant African-American leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner would be making a visit to the city of Memphis seemed almost therapeutic to a city still healing from the gaping wound left in the hearts and minds of the residents after the assassin’s bullets rang out on April 4, 1968.  It seemed a salve necessary to allow this city to move beyond the historical context of being considered “city of the dead” – if not to others, to itself – to becoming a city full of life, energy and realized potential. On May 16, 2011, the energy was saying, Memphis is a different city moving in a different direction, not quite where we want to be but definitely not where we were.

That the president would be speaking at the graduation of Booker T. Washington High School provided even more food for thought. According to historical records, the first brick, public school facility built for black students in Memphis, Clay Street School, was founded in 1873. It would later be re-designated as Kortrecht High School in 1891 and ultimately in 1926, in a newly constructed building, it would be renamed Booker T. Washington High School.  

Booker T. Washington High School would later produce some of this city’s and the world’s finest contributors; the great civil rights leader, minister and change-agent Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks; the former mayor of Washington D.C., Marion Barry; evangelist and songwriter Lucie Campbell; singer, song writer and producer Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, to name a few.  

Known for its commitment to academic achievement and life preparation, BTW solidly produced future leaders, thinkers and contributors and served as an “academy” of African-American excellence. Perhaps the most significant BTW graduate is Dr. Willie W. Herenton, who in 1991 became the first African American elected mayor of Memphis. Like President Obama, he overcame extreme odds to achieve something many said was not possible.  That this school, given its struggles in its latter days as revealed in the incredible video produced by the students (notwithstanding recent success under the leadership of principal Alicia Kiner), would have produced so many local and national leaders, many whose life paths made it possible for Barack Obama to become President Obama, is a testimony in itself.   

I am confident that the President understood the deep connectivity and the opportunity that existed in coming to Memphis to Booker T. Washington High School’s commencement ceremony; way beyond the rudimentary political reasons that many pundits have offered. It presented an opportunity to challenge himself to inspire a group of children who grew up with similar life circumstances to his own, without a father, without wealth and means, without substantial access to opportunities, but with a strong desire, a will to succeed, character and a community of educators and extended family that want the best for them. I believe he saw a chance to deliver that salve for healing in Memphis towards overcoming the death of Dr. King.  I am sure he saw the need for a reassurance of hope in a community that has experienced many disenfranchising and disheartening moments. But, even if my belief is simply conjecture and wishful thinking and BTW was simply the winner of a contest, his presence in Memphis did create a different paradigm, a new energy in the city from which we can now grow.

During his comments, President Obama said of the students at BTW, “They decided they wouldn’t be defined by where they come from but by where they want to go, what they want to achieve and the dreams they want to fulfill.”  

Likewise Memphis, we must take the lead of those students, our children, to redefine our community and believe that indeed, yes Memphis can!

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