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In a city that witnessed the Civil War and the King assassination, Jana G. Pruden encounters currents of anxiety, hope and dismay

Stark racial divides have never been far from the surface in Memphis, Tenn., a cradle of the U.S. civil-rights movement.

Stark racial divides have never been far from the surface in Memphis, Tenn., a cradle of the U.S. civil-rights movement.


In the cellphone video, a white man in a white shirt approaches from a parked white car. "Trump! Trump! All the way, Trump," he says. For four minutes and 37 seconds, he mocks the man filming him: pelting him with racial slurs, mimicking him, interrupting him and, later, calling him a "transgender faggot."

"Black lives don't matter," he says.

He says, "Black people were bought by a contract, and we got ripped off, because y'all shoulda got returned when it was evidenced and proof that y'all couldn't do anything." If there weren't a camera filming, the man says, I would have smashed you.

He looks into the camera. "Spread this," he says. "It's okay. It's okay. Spread this."


It was last Sunday, in Memphis, Tenn. A city in the American South that has its roots in slavery, that stood deep in the bloody heart of the Civil War, and then, later, the civil-rights movement. It is the place where white men like Elvis brought black music into the mainstream, where B.B. King became "the King of the Blues," and where some of the singers that defined this country – Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison – found their voice. It is where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech in support of the city sanitation workers' strike in 1968, and where he was assassinated by a white man the next day outside the Lorraine Motel. Room 306.

The cellphone video came in the last leg of an election that has ripped any veneer off the problem of racism in America, that has ripped open old wounds and exposed potential grave new threats, that has pushed racism into the mainstream as boldly and unapologetically as the man captured on the video.

Those undercurrents came to a head this week in the election of Donald Trump, a candidate openly supported and endorsed by white-supremacist and alt-right groups, and whose campaign rhetoric against Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants sparked a wave of racial incidents so broad it became known as the Trump Effect.

When Barack Obama was elected eight years ago, the front page of The New York Times declared: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory. But now, America's racial divide appears to have grown worse, or at least more blatant.

On Tuesday night, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tweeted, "This is one of the most exciting nights of my life –>make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!"

On CNN, commentator Van Jones said the election result was racist at its core. "This was a whitelash against a changing country," he said. "It was a whitelash against a black president, in part, and that's the part where the pain comes."

Van Jones: ‘This was a whitelash’


In fact, the American election season exposed a number of fissures and fractures: between black and white; American-born and immigrants; Christian and Muslim; men and women; urban and rural; the working class and the so-called "elites."

The Southern Poverty Law Center found that there were 892 hate groups operating in the United States in 2015 – including those in such categories as anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, black separatist, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi, KKK and "general hate." Outreach director Lecia Brooks says that the organization has seen a sharp increase in hate-related incidents in the past year as racist rhetoric became more accepted in mainstream political discussion, and that gains made around combatting racism, bullying and tolerance seemed to be rapidly sliding backward.

But the United States has always been a country of division. The rifts exposed this week may seem to be suddenly deeper, but they are not new. And in the South, the deep racial divide has never been far from the surface. The Ku Klux Klan was born in Tennessee, and the head office of the Ku Klos Knights is an easy drive from Memphis. On its website, the Klan proclaims that its "true Invisible Empire" has never been more relevant than it is today.

'Like we're back to the 1960s'

Greg Henderson is sitting at the bar of the Rendez-Vous restaurant, eating some of the historic restaurant's famous barbecue during a break in his daughter's dance competition and talking about the increased racial tension he has seen in his city in recent months.

"It almost feels like we're back to the 1960s," he says.

He is a black man, and is wearing a cap from his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, a school deeply intertwined with the history of the South. During the Civil War, all but four students at Ole Miss enlisted in the Confederate Army. It didn't accept its first black student until 1962, and even then only after an aggressive court order. James Meredith had to be accompanied by a force of hundreds of law-enforcement officers. Two men died and more than 200 officers were shot or injured during a riot on his first day.

It took four more decades before the university replaced Colonel Reb, a cartoon Confederate officer, with Rebel the bear as its athletic mascot, and five decades before it dropped the state flag, which has a confederate X in its corner, on campus. Only this summer did the school's marching band stop playing Dixie, the de facto Confederate anthem.

When Mr. Obama was re-elected in 2012, there was a small riot at the university, at which students shouted racial slurs and set fire to a picture of him. It was the 50th anniversary of the school's deadly desegregation riots.

But as a student at Ole Miss, Mr. Henderson saw the Confederate flag hanging in what seemed like every dorm window, on the back of every truck. The Confederate X is still in the corner of that Mississippi flag, and on some police cars in the state. When Mr. Henderson started seeing footage of Trump supporters wearing Klan hoods and Nazi paraphernalia or carrying Confederate flags, it wasn't a surprise: As a black man in the South, he had been living against that backdrop his entire life.

In a way, he says, he almost appreciates the flag. It tells him something important about the person who has it. "At least," he says, "I know who you are."

Memphis’s Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white man in 1968.

Memphis’s Lorraine Motel was where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white man in 1968.


The motel and its environs are now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Here, a woman stands at the site where Dr. King was killed.

The motel and its environs are now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Here, a woman stands at the site where Dr. King was killed.


Holding tight to the belief that most people are good

At the National Civil Rights Museum, built at the site where Martin Luther King was assassinated, president Terri Lee Freeman is trying to stay positive about the future, as she thinks about the layers of division she sees fracturing her country.

"I think what this environment has illuminated is that there are so many people that feel disconnected and disenfranchised, or are fearful that their way of life as they have known it is being totally changed in some way, and they are being totally left out," she says.

"Then, it's like, 'I've got to strike back,' in what ends up being a really visceral way. But really, it's all about fear. It's about me being afraid that I will not be able to have a place in this place that is my home, this country that is America."

She says she is holding tight to the belief that most people are good, and have good intentions. That they just want health, happiness and safety, opportunity for themselves and their loved ones. That they will know that a country fighting itself stands in danger of crumbling.

She says that one of the greatest lessons in the civil-rights movement was that everyone had a role to play, and that, with tenacity and persistence, they made great changes in the world. Many in that movement were young, and Ms. Freeman says that she is looking to young people now, too, and putting her hope in them.

"They were fearful. They knew they were risking a lot, but they had this eye on the greater good," she says. "I put hope in these future generations, and that they are going to find a better way."

At another museum, not far away, hangs the work of Ernest Withers, one of the city's first black policemen and a civil-rights photographer. In one photo, three white men stand with a sign that reads "SEGREGATION or WAR." Another shows the battered corpse of 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after supposedly whistling at a white woman. There is Martin Luther King, gazing clear-eyed into the camera outside Room 306, and the images that followed: his blood spilled on the pavement, the hotel packed with reporters, the remnants of riots on Beale Street, where the Ernest Withers museum now stands.

A lot of people cry when they look at the photos. Museum employee Veleska Lipford says that some Americans who visit have no idea of the history, even if they lived through that era. They were in other parts of the country. Or they were simply not paying attention.

But tensions have been simmering, and the present is starting to look alarmingly like the past. There have been tense – though peaceful – protests against the shooting of unarmed black men by police in Memphis and elsewhere. In one case, Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a major bridge, and in another, protesters tried to block Graceland during Elvis Week back in August.

Incidents like the one captured in the cellphone video are becoming more common.

"I know Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and all the people who died trying to get us together in whatever way are rolling in their graves," says Ms. Lipford. "They died for this, and they're … saying, 'I can't believe we did all that, and you guys are not any further than where you are.' "It's just a sad situation."

She turns to Mr. Withers's great-grandson, Erick Williams, who also works at the museum. "Is there a way to fix it?" she asks. He is 17, soft-spoken and polite. After high school, he wants to join the air force and become a pilot.

"Not unless we all can come together," he replies.

He thinks maybe he and his friends can fix it.

"People in my school don't bully each other, we don't leave anyone out," he says. "Everyone is like a big family. We don't care about each other's race. We just treat each other as human beings. We just live life."

Erick Williams, grandson of police officer and civil-rights photographer Ernest Withers.

Erick Williams, grandson of police officer and civil-rights photographer Ernest Withers.


Two congregations with a single goal

In a suburb just outside Memphis, past sprawling mansions and sprawling churches, in an area sometimes called the buckle of the Bible belt, sits the Heartsong Church. There is a small banner on its lawn. It is orange, and, after six years in the sun, starting slightly to fade.

Bashar Shala remembers the moment he first saw the sign, words flashing in his peripheral vision that were so surprising, he slammed on the brakes to be certain what it said. It read: "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood."

"That sign changed our whole perspective," he says. "We really didn't expect this not-so-random act of kindness, and it left this big impact on us. We thought we had to start reaching out to people to be accepted, but instead it was the other way around."

Mr. Shala soon met Steve Stone, the lead pastor at Heartsong. It was Mr. Stone who had put up the banner after reading that the Islamic centre had bought land across the street and reflecting on the Bible story of Jesus and the Good Samaritan.

"So this person is literally our neighbour, and You have taught us we are supposed to love our neighbours," he remembers thinking. "Okay, it's not rocket science. We have to find a way to love them."

Steve Stone and Bashar Shala walk along the side of the Friendship Park they are planning.

Steve Stone and Bashar Shala walk along the side of the Friendship Park they are planning.


When construction of the Islamic centre was delayed before Ramadan, Mr. Shala went to his neighbour to ask if they could use a spare room for prayer for a couple of days, until the work was done. Mr. Stone immediately agreed. "But I'm going to pray we're not going to have to," Mr. Shala said.

"Go ahead and pray that way," Mr. Stone told him. "I'm going to pray a competing prayer that you have to come here for at least a day, because I think it would be so good for your people and our people to get together."

"And I won," Mr. Stone laughs.

They decided it was divine intervention.

Construction ran so far behind that the Islamic Center congregation prayed at Heartsong for the entire month of Ramadan, and in that time, the congregations grew close. On the final day, people from both sides wept and embraced. It was 2010, around the time Florida pastor Terry Jones was planning to burn a Koran in Florida, on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The story of the friendship between Heartsong Church and the Memphis Islamic Centre became news around the world, and continues to be shared by people looking for hopeful stories at a tumultuous and tense time.

"I think human beings, in their nature, in their original element, are good," Mr. Shala says. "People don't like this negativity out there. They don't like this darkness, and when they see a glimpse of light they follow it like a butterfly to the light source. And I think that's what it is. That's why we're getting this attention.

"People in their own hearts, they don't want hate, they don't want fear, they don't want ignorance. They want to be friends. That's the normal thing. That's what makes us human."

The congregations have been friends ever since that first month together. They have an annual Thanksgiving feast and a spring picnic, do charity work and blood drives. They are currently planning a park, a massive project comprising eight acres of land spanning both sides of the road and a bridge in between. They dream of it as a global destination, a place where people of all cultures can be together, grounded in the idea of friendship. That friendships spiral out into other friendships, and that each one makes the world a safer and more joyful place.

A Syrian-born Muslim and a white Southern Christian, fighting against fear and ignorance, which they believe are the greatest threats to mankind. The fight has been getting harder lately, but Mr. Stone believes it's possible to change that, one person at a time.

"The more you concentrate on the things you have in common, the less the differences matter," he says. "I think the greatest danger to the human race is to be comfortable with fear and ignorance."

Mr. Shala says that people need to become active and proactive, to talk about their differences without screaming, to hold tight to the things they all believe in: freedom, democracy, liberty, equality. "And if that will not make us unite," he says, "then the entire concept of what this country was built on is at threat."

He is a cardiologist. He has patients who are white nationalists and Trump supporters. They will lie on his table and let him open their hearts, trusting him with their lives. When he tells them he is Muslim, they say, "But Dr. Shala, we don't mean you. You are one of the good ones."

The soul of America

It is a sunny afternoon on Beale Street in Memphis. The sound of music rises out of bars and slips down the street. A black man and a white man play the blues together on one stage at Silky O'Sullivan's. Down the street, Bob Dylan's Hurricane plays from the speakers outside Alfred's. The street smells of smoky Memphis barbecue and fried food, of a cigar and a woman's perfume.

The people in the crowd are many different shades, from around the country and around the world. They buy T-shirts and souvenirs, pose smiling for photos, drink big glasses of beer and sugary cocktails from fishbowls, swaying to the music on one of the many streets that defined the soul of America. A place of history and pain, of beauty and joy. A place they all love deeply, and want desperately to protect.

But the question is how to protect it, and from whom.

Jana G. Pruden is a Globe and Mail writer based in Edmonton.

Follow her on Twitter: @jana_pruden


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