Legacies and Complex Histories: A Memphis Narrative

April 8, 2019
Kayla Smith, MDiv candidate
Kayla Smith, MDiv candidate. Photo courtesy Kayla Smith

Kayla J. Smith, MDiv candidate, delivered the following remarks during Noon Service in Andover Chapel on April 3, 2019.


April 4, 2019, marked the 51st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in my hometown, Memphis, Tennessee. I still remember attending the 40th anniversary in downtown Memphis in 2008. I did not know then the interconnectedness of marching the same streets Dr. King, my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts, and so many more did. As I come close to the end of year one at HDS, I am embracing the beauty of legacies, complex narratives, and always being fueled with some hope to never give up—because people before surely did not.

It is imperative to not become cynical in a White supremacist, patriarchal-ruling world that tries to take every ounce of hope from so many people. Hopelessness was not infused in any of our ancestors, especially mine, and thus it is the very reason why I can get to attend HDS today. For anyone who has ever interacted with me long enough, I am positive you have heard me mention Memphis and Orange Mound probably more times than you ever have heard beforehand in your entire life. Moving to New England straight from undergrad and having previously spent all my life in the South, it has been a deeply reflective and nostalgic experience on thoughts of home and my heritage. My choice to attend HDS is profoundly personal and an avenue for me to continue the lineage of activism that is in my bloodstream.

Some of my classes this semester, such as "The Ethical and Religious Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Seminar" with Dr. Preston Williams and "Race and Religion in the United States" with Dr. Todne Thomas, have caused me to reflect on the meaning of my ancestry and family history. My family is from Orange Mound, a neighborhood in Memphis that was the first neighborhood in the country built for and by former enslaved Black people. The house my Grandma Delores currently resides in is a home that was built in 1936 by my Great Aunt Mary and Uncle C (Ella Mae Adams and Charles Christopher Adams) and was a part of the original blueprint mapping of the neighborhood. Today, there are three generations of family living on the same street. I also have pondered the significance of attending Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, where I was only 10 minutes from the neighborhood referred to as Dynamite Hill that infamously gave the city the nickname Bombingham. Also, I was only 10 minutes from 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park where thousands marched and were water-hosed and attacked by dogs through the racist local policing. 

On an even more personal level, my Granddaddy George Lee Gossett, Jr., who I unfortunately never got to personally meet, participated in the lock-in takeover of the local historically Black college in Memphis, LeMoyne-Owen College, demanding a Black studies department and better community engagement as a Black institution. He was also a member of the Invadersa Black radical militant group who protected Dr. King during his time in Memphis, but not without initial tensions between Black Power youth and the older Civil Rights leaders who asked for Dr. King’s presence. The cause of the 1968 sanitation strike occurred on the same corner of the middle school I attended (Colonial Middle), where two Black sanitation workers were killed by faulty machinery when trying to take cover from the rain.

The scholarship I am reading in class on Black resistance and hope for a better future has connected me to the meaningful groundwork my family did for my existence before I was even thought of. The love and support I have personally witnessed and know that existed even before I was created inspires me to do the same for people especially like myself, but for all people as well. Dr. King once said in a speech at a youth march in 1959 that we should “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in”. Another moving quote from Dr. King was from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964 when he said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” I am sure we are all aware of the complex and imperfect life of Dr. King, and I hope we know or will get to know more of the life that is beyond the commercialized and apolitical version of him this nation has created—especially after the 1999 Memphis court unanimous decision that agreed with the King family belief that there was high-level governmental conspiracy involvement in Dr. King’s death.

There is so much untold and altered history of freedom fighters. The beauty of cross-cultural and cross-generational dialogue and education is the chance to hear some unfiltered truths. I am thankful to have now spent some time listening to aunts who shared the tension and excitement of marching in the streets before and during Dr. King’s time in Memphis. They also spoke to me about students juggling to balance fighting for the revolution, maintaining schoolwork, and being scolded from their parents that “they better finish up school while they marching in them streets.” I am fortunate to have heard the stories from my older family members of the massive eerie feeling in the city, and all throughout the world, once it was announced that Dr. King had died, and then having the National Guard bring in tanks as Memphis was put on a city curfew immediately following the assassination. This is real history that only occurred decades ago. People like my family members and others had courage and believed and literally fought for the freedom for all to live peacefully and for the possible opportunity to have their granddaughter attend Harvard Divinity to tell their stories and continue the legacies.

Everything has much deeper meaning and importance to communities than what is generally told. Take the song, “We Shall Overcome” for example, a song that has become the cliché go-to song for activist groups and movements today. This is the same song, with Southern roots, that was sung by freedom fighters all throughout this country and internationally who were envisioning a radically different future. The intentionality in language and the history of the spaces we live in or visit must be acknowledged and honored. Even my Granddaddy George Jr. lived and traveled through this same Boston area that I now get to explore in ways perhaps unimaginable just a few decades prior. The legacies and discipline from everyday people in never giving up should be all the aspiration we need to fully commit and embody the idea that we truly can and shall overcome.