As it pertains to the civil rights movement and its place within Black history, few places have ties that run as deeply as Memphis.
From the sanitation workers strike to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Memphis was a flashpoint for the changing face of the United States in the late 1960s. More than half a century later, those moments are imprinted on the city’s native daughters and sons, three of which have found their way into the Northwestern State athletic department either as student-athletes or as coaches.
They are times that created a city that instills a high level of pride within its population, regardless of the time of year.
“Being from a predominantly African-American city, (that pride) comes out every day,” said men’s basketball associate head coach Rodney Hamilton, who is in his first season on the NSU staff. “Being from Memphis, it instills a little bit of everything – the good like the blues and our barbeque, the bad of being where Dr. King was assassinated and the ugly, which is the stigma around the city today. You have to say pride as well. You’re prideful when you’re from Memphis. The way we talk, the way we walk. For me, it embodies a little bit of everything.”
While King’s Aug. 28, 1963, “I Have A Dream” speech is one that resonates with most, those from Memphis equally identify with King’s trip there for the city’s sanitation workers’ strike where demonstrators wore signs stating, “I Am A Man.”
King’s presence and his April 3, 1968, “Mountaintop” speech helped close the strike and move the workers toward better working conditions and pay equity. One day later, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, which has now become part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
It also directly affected Demon defensive lineman Maurice Campbell II.
“My father worked 10 or 12 years for the city of Memphis,” Campbell said. “He and his co-workers always talked about it. Some of the stuff they did back then is still in place today. The union jobs they have, they are still fighting to keep some of those improvements in there.”
Campbell’s late father gave his son a window into what King and the workers’ actions opened for others.
“I used to sit in those meetings and hear them discuss things they wanted to keep in and how they were fighting to leave in there,” said Campbell, who was in middle school when he attended those meetings.
Although a generation separates Hamilton and Campbell, their Memphis bonds are clear as is the importance of their hometown within their lives.
“It’s always a pride factor being from Memphis,” Campbell said, echoing Hamilton’s statement about being from Memphis word for word. “There’s a lot of history there. You’re proud of where you’re from and you’re always going to represent.”
That pride is passed down from generation to generation through their place in history.
“I talk to pretty much all my family about it,” said men’s basketball center Jordan Wilmore, who like Hamilton attended Whitehaven High School in the city. “We still talk about (the city’s history). I’ve been to the Lorraine Hotel. It’s come a long way.”
Hamilton still has pictures from the Lorraine Motel on his phone and has taken his three daughters to I Am A Man Plaza and explained to them the significance of the workers’ strike that happened nearly a decade before he was born. Hamilton’s family reunions in Memphis often lead the family to those historical spots that mark the city.
He is sharing his city’s history in much the same way Campbell’s father did with him. The impact of Campbell’s workplace visits with his father and his co-workers is clear in how Campbell both views his city and his responsibility to the younger generation.
“I go back to my old high school (Ridgeway) all the time and talk to the kids,” Campbell said. “They need that positive role model, that positive figure. My dad was that positive role model for me. They need to see somebody just like them doing good. I feel like everybody needs that.”
While present-day Memphis has drawn headlines for its crime rate, NSU’s trio from the city has seen it take a step forward in recent years.
“It’s a work in progress,” Campbell said. “Every time you see us on the news, it’s somebody being killed or robbed.
“When I was little, we went to Beale Street and met people from everywhere. We had Fourth of July down by the Mississippi River and met people from all over. Now people don’t want to come down because of the safety issues. I want to flip that narrative and make it positive.”