Not long after I became mayor on New Year’s Day in 2016, I learned very quickly that there was an important — and frequent — part of the job: Everyone wants to hear from you. Which leads to speech after speech, in front of crowd after crowd.
And just as quickly, I learned just how much I enjoyed that part of the job.
Not because of me, mind you. I enjoy it because of just how strong a story I get to tell about the city that I love and I’m honored to serve as mayor. I particularly enjoy being in front of groups from out of town —conventions that chose Memphis as their home or, increasingly, investors from out of town who are seeing our momentum and want to be part of it.
To them, I enjoy sharing this: Memphis is a city that’s changed the world —and continues to change it. It’s so true, too. Memphis occupies a clear spot on the world stage. In our 200 years, we’ve become a consequential city in the world. And in our third century, we’re going to become even more of one.
Just think of how we’ve changed the world to date.
Blues music may not have been invented here, but it was certainly perfected on Beale Street. While people enjoy Beale for live music and food as a tourist attraction today, it was once an authentic cauldron for creativity and soul that resounded across the planet. W.C. Handy and B.B. King were made-in-Memphis treasures, ambassadors for an art form so genuine and authentic that it could only have come straight from the Delta to the capital of the Mid-South.
Rock ‘n’ roll, though, was absolutely invented right here in Memphis. Sam Phillips and a young man named Elvis Presley changed the world by cooking up a unique sound on the Sun Records label, and Dewey Phillips debuted it to the world on WHBQ radio on that hot July night in 1954. I often think about what it must have felt like listening to the radio that evening, wondering if people knew just how much the course of the world would change because of the sound of “That’s All Right (Mama).” Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis helped craft the form that we exported from that three-room studio right there on Union Avenue. And thanks to that, visitors from all over the world make their pilgrimages —truly, that’s what they are— to Sun Studio, Graceland and hidden points of the “real Elvis” that we’re so blessed to hold.
Memphis has also changed the business world. The entire concept of the roadside motel started here in the 1950s, when Kemmons Wilson launched Holiday Inn. A century ago, Clarence Saunders opened the first self-service grocery store in Memphis —a concept so common today that it’s hard to fathom shopping without it.
But Fred Smith changed the world on a much larger magnitude in the 1970s, when he had a bold idea to launch a cargo airline that could deliver packages anywhere in the world overnight. (Think about it: How crazy that must have sounded in 1973!) A generation later, that simple concept has thrust FedEx onto the world stage as one of the most important corporations on the globe. Even more, it’s one of the most important institutions in Memphis —if not the most important. Every day, I thank God that FedEx is in our city, employing thousands upon thousands of our citizens and making ours one of the busiest cargo airports on the planet.
Our changing of the world has not been limited to just business and the arts, however. In 1968, our city’s sanitation workers went on strike to protest low wages and poor working conditions. The strike ultimately brought the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, where his life was taken. The men who struck in 1968 marched daily with a simple, yet profound, placard that read “I AM A MAN.” That simple message meant everything, and it changed how the world viewed the struggle for human dignity. As mayor when our city commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death in 2018, I was continually reminded of just how far-reaching the “I AM A MAN” message has gone around the world —a rallying cry for human rights that spawned from the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee.
Yet our change has not been limited to just the past tense. A few blocks from City Hall, right now, there are scientists changing the world with the ongoing fight for cures and treatments for childhood cancer. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is a world-renowned treatment and research facility whose value reaches far beyond its campus here in Memphis. Go anywhere in the world, and odds are someone knows what St. Jude stands for and why Danny Thomas launched it more than half a century ago. Thanks to the generosity of its donors, the acumen of its scientists and its visionary leadership, lives are being saved every single day at St. Jude.
Yes, we are changing the world every single day.
But here’s the challenge I think about often: How will Memphis change the world in our third century? So much is working in our favor. As we embark on our third century, we do so with a level of energy in our core and our neighborhoods we haven’t seen in decades. Seemingly everywhere you look, new life is springing up where it once was dormant. Anyone who hadn’t visited Memphis in years sees it almost immediately. There’s the new life and cool vibe of the South Main Arts District. People now live in the Tennessee Brewery, which had been vacant since the 1950s. We watch NBA basketball and take in the views of the nicest Minor League baseball park in the country in the same few blocks that were largely abandoned a couple of decades ago —well, except for folks going to get a taste of those ribs smoking at The Rendezvous. We even have a Bass Pro Shops inside a giant 30-story pyramid —isn’t that cool?
I’m reminded of this momentum every time I walk in or drive by Crosstown Concourse. Once an abandoned hulk of a former Sears regional distribution center, Crosstown Concourse has been revived as a thriving center for offices, apartments, restaurants, healthcare and stores. Its occupants are diverse —and so are the people who walk through each and every day. But more than that, its purpose is real. It’s not just a shopping mall or an office building. It’s a place where some of the best organizations in our city work to serve our people. It’s a place built on the concept that we’re all better off when we’re around each other. Truly, it’s an example of what we can be in Memphis.
I also reflect on our 1968 sanitation workers, too. Their stand was for something we all take for granted —human dignity, respect, the right for a fair pay for an honest day’s work. What better message than those “I AM A MAN” signs to convey a simple message: We’re people, too. Treat us that way. All these years later, it would do the world a lot of good to get back to the “I AM A MAN” message and apply it to so many aspects of our lives. We continue our focus on equity and inclusion so that the prosperity of our third century is enjoyed by more and more of our citizens.
Memphis is a city that’s changed the world because of our soul and our originality. There is no other place in the world quite like Memphis, and I’m glad for that. When I ran for mayor, I was often asked what I loved most about Memphis. I didn’t respond with an answer in government-speak. I said it plainly: I love her people. Nowhere in the world will you see more originality, more warmth and a more kindhearted attitude than you will in Memphis, Tennessee.
You can see it on a Saturday night at FedExForum, a full crowd of Memphians, black and white, young and old, cheering on a team in the most unique way possible. You can see it on a crisp, fall evening at the Liberty Bowl, where the University of Memphis Tigers football team brings together a city like few other events can. You can see it on a sweaty night at Levitt Shell, neighbors and strangers alike dancing on the lawn in our most historic park. You can see it on the church pew on Sunday morning, at the Orange Mound parade on a Saturday morning in September and in a weekday walk down the Main Street Mall.
Our spirit is undeniable. Our authenticity is unforgettable.
We’re Memphis —two centuries of changing the world, and about to embark on a third one that will change the world even more.