Tennessee’s largest city leapt onto the national stage for its civil rights contributions and music stars. Once known for cotton, lumber and mules, the majority-black city now flaunts a vibrant culture and a notoriously high crime rate.
While passing through Memphis on my Red State Road Trip, I encountered two African-American men who represent a generational divide that arguably typifies the political apathy expressed by many young people today.
Coincidentally, both work for FedEx, the global courier delivery corporation based in Memphis.
And they both happened to spend a few years living in Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis.
Wearing a crisp red polo shirt, Hasani Withers is one year older than me. And the other, Willie McCambry Jr – donning a fitted cap – is one year older than my own father.
They neither knew each other nor had the occasion to interact, but they were in the same room and shared their thoughts with me in separate conversations.
First I meet Withers, 30, as he was working at the Beale Street gallery displaying prints by his grandfather, Ernest Withers, a famed Civil Rights-era photographer who was later revealed to be an FBI informant on black activists.
Ernest, who died in 2007, prolifically documented Negro League baseball, racial upheaval of the 1960’s and the birth of soul music. His eye for pivotal moments in time helps the casual viewer at the Withers Collection Museum connect up key Memphis events that continue to influence US politics.
Then I meet McCambry, 60, for whom the collection of over several hundred photographs touches a nerve, as he lived through the turbulent period in American history.
Yet the two sons of the South could not have more starkly divergent perspectives on politics.
Withers has never voted in his life, though he comes from a political family. His father Dyral served on the state Democratic Party’s executive committee and his uncle Dedrick served in the Tennessee state legislature.
McCambry, who felt faint and had to sit down the previous time he viewed the powerful set of photographs, says, “It’s something to make you stop and think how mind-boggling the change is.” He peers pensively at an image from iconic activist Medgar Evers’ funeral before passionately defending the current president.
While Withers says his Jehovah’s Witness faith is the main force behind his decision not to engage in the electoral process, he proclaims, “Nobody wins by one vote”.
He tells me that he walked into work on November 5, 2008, and all his colleagues expected him to be smiling ear-to-ear. But he treated the day after Obama’s historic victory as any other day at the office.
Withers does admit that the public has been excessively harsh on how much Obama could have achieved after just one term, and affirms that the US leader has successfully proven that he is serving a far broader group of citizens than just African-Americans.
Not that young Withers is disaffected the role of his community in broader society – he simply does not buy into the old ideas about direct political engagement to promote change. And he appears to accept a “post-racial” attitude, while still acknowledging that some racism still exists.
“I don’t discount the struggle they went through back then,” Withers says, walking past images of Martin Luther King Jr’s last march with Memphis sanitation workers before he was shot at the nearby Lorraine Motel balcony. “It just wasn’t until I was older that I started to appreciate it.”
In an election year when black voters are said to exhibit the same enthusiasm gap that is plaguing Democrats across the board, many political analysts wonder if the US president can rely on his base to churn out enough votes in key states on November 6.
And many African-American media commentators continue to debate whether Barack Obama has done enough to serve black constituents to whom he promised great things. Critics say he has not delivered on issues like prison reform, job discrimination and other issues that disproportionately affect that demographic group.
‘Plotting to see Obama fail’
But supporters blame Obama naysayers for demonising the first non-white president from three angles: his black identity, Ivy League liberalism and foreign Muslim-born father.
“You can still see the racism, the way people are planning, plotting to see Obama fail,” McCambry says. “That has not happened with any other president. The [Republicans] don’t even want to work with him.”
“The fact that white people will become a minority bothers those who who have a problem with diversity,” McCambry says. “These [bigots] don’t want to get along in the changing times.” He then explains the impact of assertively egalitarian politics on his upbringing.
“My parents didn’t allow us to say ‘yessir’ or ‘yes ma’am’ when we were growing up in Mississippi. They taught us to have more self-respect than that.”
McCambry draws a direct causal line from the empowerment he learned in the 1960’s to the 44th president’s racial triumph.
“Whoever thought we’d have a black man as president? I definitely didn’t.”
And this year voters beyond Tennessee must again decide if they are comfortable with a multiracial South Side Chicagoan sleeping in the White House.