Speeches & Floor Statements

Alexander in Memphis: Struggle for Civil Rights is Not a Snapshot, It is a Panorama

Posted on February 21, 2018

Congratulations to Governor Haslam, Mayor Strickland, Mayor Luttrell, Commissioner Triplett and the National Civil Rights Museum for launching the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in Tennessee.

The worst grades of our children are not in math and science but in United States History.

We need to teach more United States History so our children grow up knowing what it means to be an American.

And there is no part of being an American that is more essential than understanding our struggle with race.

A famous West Tennessean, Alex Haley, the author of Roots, said there really were two struggles: 

  • Roots 1 was the struggle for freedom
  • Roots 2 was the struggle for equality

I hope that over time there is a side trail from the Civil Rights Trail that takes visitors to Henning, Tennessee, not far away, where Alex first heard from his great aunts and grandma the stories that became Roots.

Samuel Huntingdon once wrote that most of our politics is about how we struggle to deal with setting noble goals for ourselves—and then failing to reach those goals.

There is no better example of that than how we deal with the most famous words in our founding documents: all men are created equal.

These struggles are not all ancient history.

I will be coming back to Memphis next Friday with 40 other members of the U.S. Congress in the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

Our purpose is to commemorate the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years ago.

Last week, I co-sponsored a U.S. Senate resolution recognizing the significance of those tumultuous events.

There are no more important stops on the Civil Rights Trail than Mason Temple and Lorraine Motel.  No better places to be reminded of how difficult the climate was then.

I am working with the U.S. Secretary of Interior to make these two sites also a part of the U.S. Civil Rights Network which came from legislation I co-sponsored last year and which The National Park Service will facilitate. 

In preparation for next week’s visit, I talked to two friends of many years who were in Memphis then.  

In 1968, 28-year-old Willie Herenton, an elementary school principal, marched with a sign proclaiming “I am a Man.”

Then in 1979, he became the first African-American superintendent of Memphis city schools.

And in 1991, he was elected to sit behind the desk of mayor he had protested in 1968.

In 1968 George Brown had just come back to Memphis from Howard Law School.

The next year, he was selected as one of two black, non-voting advisers to the all-white Memphis school board.

Then in 1971, he was elected to the school board.

In 1980, he became the first African-American Justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. 

The struggle for civil rights is not a snapshot, it is a panorama.

As Ben Hooks used to say, you have to understand that America is a work in progress.

My friends Willie Herenton, George Brown and I—and all of us who have lived these 50 years—celebrate that our country has come a long way, but we also know that we have a long way still to come.