MLK 50: Our First Family March in Memphis with NAACP

This blog post was written by Jason Carney, former Clean Energy Program Manager with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | April 19, 2018 | Energy Justice, Energy Policy, Events

It is hard to describe what I felt in Memphis, TN on April 4th, 2018. This date marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To start, this was my first “march”. I have always wanted to march, but never did. I was born and raised in Nashville, TN, a place of training for many of my heroes from the civil rights era.

Yet, the PTSD of the civil rights movement has muffled the cry of this extraordinary era of American democracy in Nashville. My grandmother’s generation lived through it and, like war veterans, don’t speak often on their experience or the importance of engaging today. My mother’s generation, in an attempt to avoid perpetual conflict, tried to live as if it didn’t happen and just get along. Consequently, the banner was dropped. The mantle was not passed. There was no excitement in my home, church or neighborhood around organizing and advocating.

I have always understood why we are where we are, but I have never accepted the previous generation’s seemingly nonchalant attitude toward civic engagement. Although I learned quite a bit of civil rights history from my family, my church, the library, etc., I never marched…until April 4th, 2018. Until then, there was always something in the way, whether real or perceived. Still, I was ashamed because I felt I owed John Lewis, Diane Nash, Michael Schwerner, and many more, more than just my participation in voting.

I believe it was all God’s plan. My first march was as a lifetime member of the NAACP with my family in tow. Both my kids got to lead the march by helping hold the banner and I was able to walk with NAACP President Derrick Johnson holding the NAACP seal. I chanted for the first time and led chants.

Later, we toured the National Civil Rights Museum. It was important that my family was with me. We will always have that as a point of reference for important discussions in the future. The trip made me feel like I was finally stepping into my place in civic history; like I was now contributing to the progression of democracy. There is a difference between reading about these things and doing them, participating. There is no superior way to participate, but there is a difference.

I saw, in Memphis, how diverse groups must come together to show strength. I saw how noisy it can be, but how beautiful that noise is when it has purpose. I saw the police presence. A half century ago it was in opposition to the march, but on April 4th, 2018, it was in protection of the marchers. It felt great to march with people I didn’t know, but felt akin in our appreciation of Dr. King. It was great to have tired feet (we stood for hours before marching), but to be able to share that discomfort with fellow marchers and laugh.

Through my own journey in life, I am now engaged in advocating for clean energy in the Tennessee Valley. I know now that it will be noisy, exhausting, and exhilarating work, but I also understand that if diverse groups will unify, mobilize and endure, we can make a difference. For 50 years now, April 4th has been an important date in American history. It now has increased significance for me and my family. Thank you, Dr. King, thank you.

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