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A throbbing two-block entertainment district is all that is left of old Beale Street, most of which was razed in urban renewal schemes. (Lucian Perkins)

The Soul of Memphis

Despite setbacks, the Mississippi River city has held onto its rollicking blues joints, smokin' barbecue and welcoming, can-do spirit

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The lower end of the trolley route swings through the South Main Arts District, which is dotted with lofts, galleries and eateries, among them the Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest, where you can sip a malted in Elvis’ favorite booth or relive a scene from Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train, some of which was shot there.

The Lorraine Motel is just a short walk from the Arcade and a half-mile south of Beale Street. In its day, it beckoned as a clean, full-service establishment with decent food—one of the few lodgings in Memphis that welcomed African-Americans, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole among them. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 dismantled legal barriers, the Lorraine was that rare place where blacks and whites could mingle comfortably. In hot weather, a mixed group of musicians might drop in from recording sessions at Stax, which had no air conditioning, to cool off in the Lorraine swimming pool. Guitarist Steve Cropper—one of several white artists integral to the Stax sound—co-wrote “In the Midnight Hour” with Wilson Pickett just a few doors down from No. 306, the $13-a-night room where King customarily stayed.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on the evening of April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader stood outside that room, bantering with friends down in the parking lot. One of them was a respected Memphis saxophone player named Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform at a mass rally that night. “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ in the meeting tonight,” King called out. “Play it real pretty.” Those were his last words.

Barbara Andrews, 56, has been curator of the adjoining National Civil Rights Museum since 1992. “It is a very emotional place,” she said of the Lorraine. “You see people crying, you see people sitting in silence.” The exhibits trace the painful, determined journey from abolitionism and the Underground Railroad to the breakthroughs of the 1950s and ’60s. You can board an early ’50s-vintage city bus from Montgomery, Alabama, and sit up front near a life-size plaster statue of Rosa Parks, who famously refused to give her seat to a white man; every minute or so, a recording of the driver asks her to move to the back. (“No!” snapped Durand Hines, a teenager in town from St. Louis for a family reunion.) The museum’s narrative moves on to Birmingham and Selma and Dr. King’s work in Chicago and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. As you approach the end—the carefully preserved motel rooms and the balcony itself—you hear a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord” with a calm, irresistible power, just as she did at King’s funeral: “Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand.”

Not everyone makes it all the way. Andrews recalls walking the late African-American Congresswoman Barbara Jordan through the museum. “Actually I was pushing her wheelchair—and she did pretty well through most of the exhibits. But by the time we had come around by Chicago—you could hear Mahalia singing—she asked that I turn back. She said she knew how this ends. It was just too much for her to bear.”

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On April 17, 1973, a Dassault Falcon jet took off from Memphis bearing the first Federal Express overnight delivery. That night, 14 Falcons carried 186 packages to 25 cities. The original plane is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.

Fred W. Smith had dreamed of creating such a service as an undergrad at Yale, where he was a flying buddy of John Kerry and a frat brother of George W. Bush. During two tours of duty in Vietnam, where Smith flew on more than 200 combat missions, he gained valuable exposure to complex logistical operations. It paid off. Today, Memphis-headquartered FedEx is a $33 billion company serving 220 countries and handling more than 7.5 million shipments daily. “Memphis without Fred Smith and FedEx is hard to conceive,” says Henry Turley. “FedEx is the economic engine.”

Memphis is also a major river port, rail freight center and trucking corridor, and a key distribution hub for Nike, Pfizer, Medtronic and other companies. At the cavernous FedEx SuperHub at Memphis International, where packages tumble along 300 miles of automated sorting lines, the noise level is deafening. Handlers wear earplugs, back belts and steel-toed shoes. The pace quickens after 11 p.m. “At night, we gang-tackle everything,” said Steve Taylor, a manager of the SuperHub control room, who shepherded me around. “We’re sorting 160,000 packages an hour.”

With a payroll of more than 30,000, FedEx is by far Memphis’ largest employer. Those jobs are a key to undoing the legacies of poverty and racial inequality, said Glenn D. Sessoms, 56, who was then managing daytime sorting operations at the SuperHub. “Think about it—there’s probably about 2,000 or more African-Americans on my 3,500-person shift here,” he said. “Well, a lot of them are managers, team leaders and ramp agents.”

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