• Kate Boettcher

S.1 Freedom Ride - Memphis, Tennessee

Back in June of 2021, eight of us at Rural Arizona Action were able to travel by bus ride to Washington, D.C., to rally for the passage of S.1 The For the People Act. Our travel would not have been possible without the tireless work of our bus drivers, hotel and restaurant workers, and organizers back at home who kept us safe and healthy. This also would not have been possible without the incredible organizing, funding, and coordination of Unite Here Local 11 and Case Action Arizona. We are tremendously grateful for their sustaining and empowering leadership -- the type that never abandons the fight for multigenerational, multiracial, working-class, and disenfranchised communities. This effort to save our democracy and fight for social justice requires us to transform and empower each other along the way. We thank them for bringing us along and exemplifying what it means to always act from the pivot point of people power. Earlier this month, members of Unite Here Local 11 led a 10-day strike against their employer, HMS Host, to push for affordable healthcare benefits, equity in pay, and worker protections from discrimination. Support Unite Here Local 11 by learning more about how you can get involved in their fight for worker’s rights on their website.


On our third day of travel to Washington D.C., we arrived in Memphis, Tennessee. Originally, we were supposed to travel to Philadelphia, Mississippi but were unable to go due to travel timing. On the morning of that day, we were unaware of the change in itinerary. It was not until the late afternoon when we found out that our next destination was the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As with all of the places we visited, it felt impossible to prepare for the history and the emotional weight rooted in these places. When we got to Memphis, it was after a long travel day from Tulsa, Oklahoma. At midday, we stopped in Little Rock, Arkansas to see the Little Rock Nine Memorial, commemorating the nine students who attended Central High School to test the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case that banned segregation in schools. When I think of Arkansas, I remember the humidity. In the distance, trees appeared to blur together, as if the clouds above them were too heavy with moisture to stay aloft. There was something primal and powerful about existing in that atmosphere, with other community organizers and union leaders, and feeling a part of something massive. Among the hundreds of us, there was this emotion below the surface that felt electric. There is a tipping point for when grassroots movements fully take off and it felt like we were in that moment. The sense of fellowship overrode the intense heat and humidity. We were bracing for much more than what was at the surface.


After Little Rock, we made the trek to Memphis, Tennessee. There is a song called, I Should See Memphis. It has a melody that is haunting and sweet, with drops and lifts in tempo that take turns through to the end of the song. In the background, strings play that are constantly lilting back and forth, as if chasing the voice of the singer. There’s this undercurrent of longing throughout the song and whenever I hear it, I am reminded of the hours of travel before we arrived in Memphis. I loved Memphis. Like most places we passed through, I was amazed by the city’s ecosystem, with vines twisting up telephone poles and up the sides of red-brick buildings. I loved the artistry of the city and the comfort it brought to know that I was in the nexus of so much rich history. Wherever we wandered, the warmth of decades of softly-played music seemed to be always right around the corner. I only got to experience the city in the late afternoon. The sun was casting threads of gold eastward into the streets that wove into the soft neon lights on Main Street. It felt joyous, to be in a city that was so lively and unique from anywhere else I had ever been to. I felt like my senses could not take in the city as fast as it took in me.

Taken on June 20, 2021 in Downtown Memphis

 

When we saw the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, I could not control my tears. It seems limiting to remember the moment in a metaphor. But it is the truth that I cannot fully express the emotions of that day just as it is because it is a moment that I still work to process through and likely will for the rest of my life. It feels too raw. I will try my best to explain.


I think of our planet on its last days of human life. It’s the classic idea that we have to abandon our ravished home planet to traverse across an unknown universe, in search of any source of life that we can see ourselves in. In this vast journey, we stumble upon a colorful dot of light in the distance, a brilliant lapis blue surrounded by darkness. It appears to be pulsating because of its vibrancy, humming quietly lightyears away, slowly growing in size the closer we fly. It’s the jubilation of a chance -- a chance that there’s a group of us waiting for us on this planet. That somehow, it is a carbon copy of our home planet, but captured just a few thousands of trips earlier around its own sun that we can save it this time. That this time we will do it right. We see towering clouds from above, so stark against the dark that they appear solid. But we pass through them with ease and our faces are illuminated by flashes of indigo and copper. There’s a comfort in knowing that the shades of Earth have followed us this far. Against all odds of arriving on an unknown planet, we land seamlessly and exit to feel the coolness of fresh air. We wander around and see the same sights of home. Trees appear to span sky-high. Light mist pushes inland to cool our skin. We feel authentic warmth from this sun for the first time. As we explore deeper into this unknown land, we begin to notice that we cannot hear any voices or see any people. Massive structures sit in thick soil, with rust creeping up metal slats and chips etched deep into wooden beams. The metal is so dulled that even the sun cannot catch a gleam off of its surface. The wood is so rotted over that it blends into the ground that it is staked in. We have stumbled onto this land and it is too late -- the structures are left behind but the people are not. We have to sift through pieces of rubble to find anything, perhaps a shred of cloth, to let us know that people once stood here. The agony hits us of who we will never know and the stories that we will never get to hear. If we decide to join this new planet, we won’t have anyone to tell us where to go. The wisdom that we seek to begin anew will not be told to us. It’s just us, our grief, and this quiet, calm planet.


This is how I felt standing in the parking lot, staring up at the wreath that marks where Dr. MLK Jr. was killed 53 years prior. Of course, this metaphor is not exactly complete nor accurate. We do have grief, but this is not a time of calm or quiet. We have the weight of what we know. The collective pain that got to this point in history and the collective pain that continued after it ripple into everything that we do. I was met with this feeling that it was too late in that I was experiencing fresh grief for something that so many others have experienced before me and that I had to catch up in the span of days. I have never felt so young and naive. Nor so aware of how much I truly did not know and would never know about our history. I never want to let go of the stories that we will never hear and of that feeling, when I became aware of just how many I would never hear. It seemed impossible in my mind to rationalize this feeling in action and to grapple with my purpose. I had to get back on the bus, contemplate these feelings and thoughts, thinking I would sit alone with them. But it was the opposite; we were all feeling it.


As we departed Memphis and headed towards Washington D.C., this segment of the journey was met with another peak of exultation. As I have stated before, the emotional pattern of this journey was met with moments of both extreme joy and deep grief and sorrow. This particular part of the experience was full of joy. As we were driving through the Carolinas, impromptu dancing broke out on our bus. The sun was setting and emitting a soft glow inside that made the air feel dreamlike. As the music played, there was a special radiance that clung to each person who took their turn to dance along. Golden light backlit us as we stood, mixing with the greenery outside that was flashing past the windows. It felt like we were the only ones on that highway, but not the first to have felt this level of solidarity and connection. As we drove on, my mind wandered back to the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I was fixated on the thought of stumbling upon lost civilization where structures were left behind but the people were not. If I did walk onto our Earth for the first time, thousands of years from now, I would want to be a part of that recovery force, that sifts through the rubble and holds onto that shred of cloth. On this Earth and in real time, we can take what we can learn to uplift and uncover the voices that have been silenced. I believe it is possible to do this when we take the wisdom learned from people-grown power and channel that into actions that bring new people in along the way. In true power, there is no ownership of wisdom and no endpoint of wisdom to be gained. We can create a story that is so encompassing and so loud, that it can never be covered and never be silenced. There should be no limitations on what we are capable of imagining for ourselves, for each other, and for our planet. This experience has heightened an intense urgency to never stop learning about these injustices and committing to action that will work to uncover and create stories driven from people-power. The fight for voting rights and racial justice must go beyond the current moment. A light has always been here, sometimes dim and other times incandescent. As the founding Freedom Riders did sixty years ago, we have to keep it ignited.

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