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MLK's Legacy and the Memphis Arts Community

The staff and Board of ArtsMemphis join communities around the globe in solemn observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  On this day, we reaffirm our commitment to building a more equitable Memphis.  A Memphis in which every resident shares equal access to our world-class cultural assets.  A Memphis in which the arts community reflects our city's racial and ethnic diversity.  Above all, a Memphis in which the experience of art, in all its forms, brings us closer together.

Artists played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement to which Dr. King gave his life.  In fact, moments before he was shot dead, King asked the Memphis bandleader and saxophonist, Ben Branch, to play a spiritual: "Precious Lord, Take My Hand."  Moreover, it was artists who served as "first-responders" in helping the nation confront its collective trauma.  Just three days after the assassination, Memphis' own B.B. King was playing a memorial concert for MLK alongside Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin; meanwhile, Nina Simone was composing "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)"; Arthur Mitchell was hatching plans to launch the Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Mississippi native Joe Overstreet was painting his extraordinary abstract work, "Justice, Faith, Hope and Peace."

These acts of creation shined light into the darkness.  They gave voice to our outrage and our grief.  And they affirmed our shared humanity in a way that only the arts can do.

Now, half a century later, as Memphis reckons with the unfinished dream of Dr. King, artists are once again lighting our path forward.  The MLK50 commemoration began last August at the National Civil Rights Museum with a Youth Poetry Slam, sponsored by ArtsMemphis.  Since that time, many other ArtsMemphis grantees have participated in MLK50 activities: Indie Memphis introduced a screenwriting residency for black filmmakers; Ballet Memphis performed a collection of pieces, under the title I Am, inspired by Civil Rights iconography; students from the Stax Music Academy performed an original musical about MLK and the Sounds of the Civil Rights Era; Hattiloo Theatre staged The Mountaintop, set on the night before King's murder and written by Hattiloo's renowned Artistic Director, Katori Hall.  Most recently, on April 2nd, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performed for a Cannon Center audience that included surviving participants in the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike; and just last night, IRIS Orchestra played a concert at Clayborn Temple, where the striking sanitation workers began their marches in 1968.  (The PRIZM Ensemble will perform at that same historic venue tomorrow night.)  Meanwhile, Collage Dance Collective is part of the all-star lineup for today's Day of Remembrance program at the National Civil Rights Museum; and the Brooks Museum is currently exhibiting photographs from the Sanitation Workers Strike, taken by Ernest C. Withers.  Also not to be missed: Opera Memphis will open their Midtown Opera Festival on Saturday with a collection of short works about Memphis – including a powerful piece set in the Sears Crosstown building on April 3, 1968.

At ArtsMemphis we recognize our responsibility to not only promote cultural equity, but also to redress the history of disinvestment by arts funders in communities of color.  This past year, we opened up our Operating Support grants (our largest pool of funding) to a more diverse spectrum of arts groups than ever before.  And while we're proud of our initial progress, we know we have a long way to go.  We're keenly aware of the gaping racial and economic divide that persists within our great city.  And so, today, we recommit ourselves to the vital work of Dr. King.

Upper right: Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Marion S. Trikosko.
Middle left: Photo of the Ben Branch Orchestra, courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum.

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