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Do The Words 'Race Riot' Belong On A Historic Marker In Memphis?

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The sign, a private marker placed by the NAACP, and approved by the National Park Service, as it now stands in Army Park.

A somber procession began on Sunday in the courtyard of the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. Everyone in Memphis knows about that piece of history, but until recently, folks were unaware of a massacre that happened in the same part of town 100 years earlier.

On May 1, 1866, Memphis was home to a massacre that left dozens of black folks dead and countless others injured. This week in Memphis, the city is remembering that grim chapter in its history — a 150-year-old atrocity that shocked the nation and was nearly forgotten.

Stephen V. Ash, a history professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the author of A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook The Nation One Year After The Civil War, says newspapers of the era labeled what happened in Memphis a "race riot," mostly on the basis that it began as a fight between black Union soldiers and some Irish police officers.

"The rumor among the whites was that this was a full-scale black uprising in South Memphis," Ash says, "and so white mobs began forming, marched into South Memphis and began indiscriminately shooting black men, women and children." This went on for 36 hours.

In the end, Ash says, 46 black people were dead, many others were beaten or raped, and black churches, schools and homes were burned to the ground. The mob attack wound up helping to shape the course of Reconstruction-era politics and speed the passage of the Constitution's 14th Amendment — guaranteeing citizenship to recently freed slaves.

Phyllis Aluko, a Memphis-based attorney, read Ash's book and couldn't believe she'd never heard about the incident, so she started the process of creating a historical marker to commemorate what had happened. First, she got the local chapter of the NAACP involved. It agreed to sponsor and pay for the marker. Then, Aluko submitted an application to the Tennessee Historical Commission, an organization whose mission includes marking "important locations, persons, and events in Tennessee history." What came next was a months-long debate over what to name the violence.

The commission wanted the words "Race Riot" at the top of the sign. But that phrase has troubling connotations for Beverly Bond, a historian at the University of Memphis.

"Naming is very important. If your name is John and I insist on calling you Johnny, it's really a power relationship," Bond says. "Most people tend to think in a 20th century frame of reference that [race riot] must be African-Americans who are rioting and destroying their community."

In an email to the NAACP, one commissioner said that the term "race riot" would "stand the test of time."

Not necessarily, says Beverly Robertson. When she was director of the National Civil Rights Museum, she found that it wasn't just the exhibits that needed routine maintenance, but the language and scholarship of history itself. Robertson is one of three African-Americans on the 24-member Tennessee Historical Commission. The words "race riot" didn't sit well with her either, but she and others were outvoted. So when the commission finally insisted that those words appear on the sign, Robertson told the NAACP to pull the plug.

"If we don't tell it right, then generations to come will not understand what literally did happen," Robertson says. Instead, with the city's blessing — and not the state's — the NAACP put up a private marker that summarized what unfolded on the day of the massacre.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., says there's a growing choir of voices demanding a reconsidered history of the former Confederacy, starting with public monuments. Stevenson believes the South should remember the story of slavery and its aftermath in the way Germany now marks the Holocaust.

"Until we change the landscape with these markers and these images with a new iconography, we're going to be living in a space that is compromised by the absence of truth," he says.

At the end of Sunday's procession, civic leaders, pastors, police officers and historians took pictures with one of the country's first memorials to a Reconstruction-era event. A simple historic marker, which states, in no uncertain terms, that the African-Americans killed there in 1866 died not in a riot, but in a massacre.

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