Monday, November 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities: Memphis and Nashville

I'm driving along Nashville's West End Avenue in my 10-year-old Buick LeSabre (a veteran of 155,000 miles and still counting). I'm on a story assignment with a young journalist from Chicago. Memphis comes up in the conversation, and she asks about something she's heard: "Nashville and the rest of Tennessee hate Memphis, right?"

It wasn't the first time I'd heard about the Bluff City's uneasy relationship with the rest of the state. I remember back in the 1970s when an Ivy League-educated, Knoxville-reared journalist colleague of mine in North Carolina described Memphis this way: "It's the largest city in northern Mississippi."

He didn't mean it as a compliment.

I'd asked him about Memphis because the city had held a fascination for me since the early 1960s when I was a teenager. That was when I discovered the blues and first really appreciated rockabilly. I've since spent a lot of time in Memphis (including maintaining an apartment there with my wife for the past four years), and I've developed some ideas about what makes the city different.

Let's start with politics. Today, with all the Tea Party shouting and Republican resurgence, Memphis is a blue speck in a sea of red. One reason, of course, is that the majority of the approximately 700,000 people who live there are black. The farther east you travel from Downtown and Midtown, the whiter and more Republican it gets.

The racial divide that killed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 remains an old sore that's not completely healed. It's not uncommon to hear white people call Memphis Memphrica. Willie Herenton, the city's first black mayor, a brooding, thin-skinned man obsessed by race, didn't help much despite nearly two decades of rule. His successor, A.C. Wharton, also black, offers promise that some long-missing salve may now be applied.

"Boss" (E.H.) Crump, the city's political dictator for much of the first half of the 20th century, has been dead a long time, but his legacy still casts a shadow. Crump was every bit as powerful in his city as Richard Daley Sr. was in his. Maybe moreso. When Herenton ran unsuccessfully for Congress this past year, he was inevitably compared to Crump, who also served for a time in Congress.

In my mind's eye, Memphis is dark, Nashville is light.

I was in Nashville much of the past week, and the city seemed to be thriving despite the devastating flood of last May. The skyline that Bob Dylan once sang about gets more sleek and impressive every year. Broadway, the main thoroughfare, was jam-packed this past Saturday night as college football fans (Vanderbilt played the University of Tennessee) crowded Tootsie's and the dozens of other venues, elbowing for room with the thousands of other folk who still flock to Nashville to see or become country music stars.

Memphis from Beale to Union can hop at night, too, but a northerly stroll up Main or Front Street is a journey into noir land. In many ways, Memphis remains the haunting metropolis Jim Jarmusch depicted in his 1990 film Mystery Train even if it's thankfully less desolate. That desolation once got nailed by legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson, who said downtown looked like "Dresden after the war."

"Memphis Noir" is a major reason I love the city the way I do.

For all of Nashville's Hank-Roy-Lefty-Webb-Kitty-Patsy-driven mystique, it still pales in comparison to the city where Elvis would only come out in the wee hours, dragging his mafia with him, to ride the Zippin Pippin in Libertyland when no one else was there, or the city where Jerry Lee Lewis showed up at the gates of Graceland late at night drunk and wielding a .38 while the oblivious boy from Tupelo was asleep at the top of the hill. Jerry Lee always figured he was the true king of rock 'n' roll.

Crime-wise Memphis routinely ranks just behind Detroit, enough to inspire the cop television show The First 48 before Police Director Larry Godwin complained about the bad publicity and made the show look for another city to embarrass. The crime, by the way, includes more than its share of political corruption, with John Ford of the Ford political dynasty leading a long line of pols-on-the-take who've marched off to prison or into other halls of shame. I interviewed Ford in the early 1980s while doing a story about Memphis politics. When His Majesty deigned to look at me, it was usually with disdain or at best utter impatience.

Interstate 40, the "Music Highway", connects Nashville and Memphis, but the disconnect begins with Nashville's corporate music infrastructure. Corporate Nashville has always fought a kind of war with roots music. Sticking with roots is hard when all you really care about is the bottom line. That's why it put an orchestra behind George Jones at the height of his career, hoping he'd cross over like Jim Reeves did.

Whether at Sun Records, Stax, Alex Chilton's garage, or in the 1920s-era blues saloons along Beale, Memphis music has always had an edge, a rawness, a real-ness that scared the bejeebers out of the corporate suits on Music Row. No wonder Willie and Waylon had to go back to Luckenbach. No wonder Steve Earle had to leave "Guitar Town". For new, rootsy talents on the scene today like Jamey Johnson, it may be just a matter of time.

Memphis, you scary, dark city by the Big Muddy, city of neon and shadows, you may be as poor and sometimes as rejected as an orphan in a Dickens novel, but unloved you are not. Believe me. I'm a witness, and I just gave you my testimony.

Apologies: New posts coming!

Apologies for not posting during the past week or so. I've been in Nashville, Tenn., going through a "multi-media boot camp" hosted by the John Seigenthaler Center, Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, to better equip myself in understanding and utilizing the technology so essential to the journalism profession today. These were 10-hour days with little time for anything else. Hopefully readers of this blog will soon see some of the results of this training.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The "Bottom" to "Top" Low-Down on Recent Worker Activity in Dixie and Beyond

Ever hear the song by country music singer Jamey Johnson in which a country music star laments his loneliness on the road to an unknown, down-on-his-luck bar mate? The bar mate has this to say in response: “It might be lonely at the top, but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”

It’s a great song, one that hearkens back to some of Ol’ Hank’s best, and it speaks to an economic divide in this country and beyond that continues to grow every day.

Here are some news items from the U.S. South and beyond that speak to that divide—folks at the bottom fighting for their rights, and those at the top fighting just as hard against them. It's getting tougher and tougher for workers to take a stand, but they're doing it, and sometimes they even win.

Management at Atlanta-based Delta gets a narrow victory—and a wake-up call
Less than 350 out of nearly 19,000 votes was the margin of victory for Delta management recently as flight attendants said “No” to joining a union.

The vote was not a surprise but still a disappointment to the thousands of flight attendants, including 300 in Memphis, who've worked for Northwest—now merged with Delta—and have long supported union representation.

Votes from ramp workers and others at the merged airlines are still to come. Industry observers say management shouldn’t be popping the champagne just yet. The vote by the flight attendants was so close that unionization remains a “threat” to the company, which, by the way, waged an expensive, high profile anti-union campaign prior to the vote.

Fed-Ex’s Fred Smith enjoyed the Nov. 2 elections
With the Republican takeover of the U.S. House and defeat of pro-labor House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., Federal Express CEO Smith can breathe easier about Oberstar’s push to apply the same rules to the Memphis-based company that now apply to its major U.S. competitor, UPS.

Contract drivers at Fed-Ex have been saying they’re essentially full-time employees but can’t unionize because of their job designation. The Teamsters union and others say Fed-Ex should operate under the same rules as its competitors instead of the rules of the Railway Labor Act that now apply.

Piedmont agents vote union
Salisbury, Md.-based Piedmont Airlines fought unionization tooth and nail, but its 3,000 fleet and passenger service agents recently cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Communications Workers of America.

It was a two-to-one landslide for the union, which means workers can indeed stand up to union-busting tactics, intimidation, and “captive-audience meetings” decrying unions, according to the AFL-CIO Now Blog.

European hypocrisy in Arkansas
Despite European firms’ claims of allegiance to International Labor Organization codes of conduct, many are quick to take advantage of lax labor laws in the United States. Take the Dutch-based Gamma Holding firm, for example.

When workers at its National Wire Fabric company in Star City, Arkansas, went on strike, management wasted no time hiring permanent replacements, a direct violation of those same codes.

A new study by the Human Rights Watch organization, A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations, details how officials with companies such as Gamma Holding talk out of both sides of their mouths, something U.S. Southerners are used to hearing from their politicians and own business leaders.

This latter entry reminds me of corporate consultant Richard A. Beaumont’s essay, Working in the South, of some years back. In that essay, Beaumont talks of European industrialists coming to the South and reacting in shock to the virulent anti-unionism of their Southern counterparts. “Five minutes later, (the European industrialist) is saying, `Now, when I go to the South, how do I operate on a nonunion basis?’”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Elephants make Dinosaurs of the Blue Dogs in the Cottonfields

What's the future of the "Blue Dog" Democrat? It's a legitimate question to ask in the wake of Tuesday's election.

Here in Mississippi, two "Blue Dog" Democrats--1st District Congressman Travis Childers and 4th District Congressman Gene Taylor--lost their re-election bids to Republicans Tuesday. They lost despite major efforts to distance themselves from the president and from outgoing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and by voting against such Democrat-led initiatives as health care reform.

Stalwart fiscal conservatives both of them, they lost because they're Democrats and they represent majority white districts in the South. Roughly half of the U.S. House's 54-member Blue Dog Coalition lost their seats in the Nov. 2 election.

A bit of history helps put Tuesday's results in perspective.

The white South has been trending Republican ever since former Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Thurmond had first broken from the Democratic Party way back in 1948 when he led the so-called Dixiecrat revolt out of the party and served as the States' Rights presidential candidate that year. Thurmond and other conservatives in the once Solid (Democratic) South just couldn't tolerate their party's tolerance of civil rights and labor any longer.

Thurmond was a pioneer to Southern Democrats-turned-Republicans--from North Carolina's Jesse Helms to Alabama's Richard Shelby.

Southern Democrats had been a key--if often unlikely--part of the coalition that put and kept Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt in the White House. They included raging liberals like Claude Pepper of Florida and ol' mossback (social) conservatives like Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. Of course, some unreconstructed Confederates like Harry Byrd of Virginia and "Cotton" Ed Smith of South Carolina eventually became FDR enemies.

After Roosevelt died, the coalition fell apart, and many Southern Democrats joined with a new Republican majority in Congress in supporting the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a repudiation of everything FDR stood for as regards labor and working people.

The Dixiecrat revolt did not lead to a viable third party for conservative Southern Democrats after 1948, but their disgruntlement grew as the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1950s and early 1960s. By 1964, Strom Thurmond was campaigning throughout the South for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

However, even as more and more elephants appeared in the cotton fields (to paraphrase writer Wayne Greenhaw's description), many Southern conservatives chose to stay within the party that their daddies, mamas, granddaddies and grandmamas had belonged to since Abe Lincoln held office. Especially at the local level, Democrats remained strong in the South. For one reason, they knew government and how to make it work for the voters they needed, something still alien to anti-government Republicans.

The immediate predecessor to the "Blue Dog" Democrat in Congress was the "Boll Weevil" Democrat of the 1970s and 1980s, best personified by U.S. Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery of Mississippi, a military veteran who once during the Vietnam War angrily charged an anti-war protester on the steps of the Capitol.

Montgomery had a long, successful career in politics before retiring, and before the Congress became so intensely partisan that Southern conservatives either had to become an elephant or a dinosaur.

That appears to be the choice that Childers, Taylor and a lot of other Blue Dogs faced. Partisanship, guilt by association, Tea Party madness, voter anger and frustration at an economy that still rewards the rich while punishing everybody else--it's enough to make a blue dog howl the blues.