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Woody Paige: World needs convergence; I found some at Memphis home

August 20, 2017 Updated: August 20, 2017 at 6:40 pm
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photo - Woody Paige Friday, July 22, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Woody Paige Friday, July 22, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

"All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again."

- Thomas Wolfe

- - -

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - On the blanketed bluffs alongside the mighty Mississippi stands the once great Cotton Capital, the convergence of Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, of the old South and the new South, and of Elvis Aaron Presley, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, remains so evident and prevalent.

Without prompting, a prominent stock broker tells me: "Truthfully, since April 4, 1968, and Aug. 16, 1977, it's never been quite the same in Memphis."

The assassination of Dr. King a year short of a half century ago and the death of The King 40 years ago. Deaths that sent tremors through the city that had been characterized by a national magazine as a "decaying river town."

- - -

After a decade away, I did come home again over the weekend.

A few of us held a memorial at the cemetery for my mom and dad Friday. Woodrow Sr. died in his sleep 42 years ago the past week, and Billie Paige passed away quietly two years ago. My dad was raised in Tupelo, Miss., where Elvis spent his youth, too. My mom spent most of her life in Memphis. When I was a boy, we lived in Lauderdale Courts, a few doors from the Presleys. Years later, we lived in a subdivision called "Graceland," just behind the mansion.

After the service, my friend Larry and I revisited Graceland, where Elvis lived and died. A candlelight vigil was staged by thousands Thursday night. Then we drove over to the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was assassinated, and dozens were touring the museum.

Then we stopped at the nearby park, where Forrest is buried beneath a statue depicting the Confederate cavalry officer in uniform on his horse.

A few people also were gathered. But, unlike at Graceland and the Lorraine, they were not honoring or celebrating.

Students from the University of Tennessee Medical School adjacent to the park were protesting. They want the grave moved and the sculpture removed.

Two police officers were on guard. (A few days earlier, someone tried in vain to topple a statue that weighs 10,000 pounds.)

Considering the recent events in this country, the scene was understandable and eerie.

Especially since Nathan Bedford Forrest was, by substantiated reports in history, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Convergence.

- - -

As a 5-year-old, I would sit on the front porch at the apartment complex and listen to my 16-year-old neighbor - a boy named Elvis - sing. When he became famous, Elvis would come at Christmas to my aunt's home and sing Christmas carols. Later, when one of my cousins was a member of the "Memphis Mafia" (Elvis bodyguards and hangers-on), as a teenager, I regularly would walk to Graceland and play touch football or once more listen to Elvis sing in the Jungle Room.

As a young newspaper reporter for The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, I covered the aftermath of the assassination, civil rights marches and speeches at the church where Dr. King last spoke. All the events left a profound impression.

And on the route to work daily, I had to drive by Sun Records and the Forrest statue, usually covered by green paint (left by vandals), and wondered why. Forrest was a complicated man who had been a slave trader and businessman who joined the war as a private and emerged as one of Robert E. Lee's most trusted generals. He was a leader in founding the Klan and years later attempted to disown and disband the racist organization and organize black voters throughout the South.

More than 150 years after the end of the UnCivil War, there are those on both sides who won't forget and forgive. I lived it. My cousins participated in simulated battles, and, in high school, our senior class trip was a lengthy bus ride to Shiloh National Park, site of one of the war's bloodiest engagements. As a kid I would sneak sips of water from the fountains designated "colored" because I didn't understand, and a black co-worker in the stock room of a department store and this 15-year-old demonstrated with a "sit-in" at the drugstore lunch counter. We were kicked out and ordered never to return.

My school's football team won the state championship in 1963.

It won the state championship again in 2015 and 2016 and will try for a three-peat after opening the season Friday night.

The school's name is Whitehaven. We had one black student then; the school is predominantly African-American now. I have been asked to speak at the school. I don't know what to say.

On Friday night, I ate at the bar of a famous Memphis barbecue restaurant with Tony Howard, a Memphis cop, and his wife, Heidi, who is a teacher. "We couldn't sit at this counter together when I was young," I told them. He said: "Race relations in Memphis are better than most everywhere else. We've made progress, but we have a long way yet, and what's going on now isn't good for anybody."

What the lost world needs now is convergence.

I found some by going back home again.

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