As Memphis marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., NPR sat with three generations of a Memphis family to find out: What does Dr. King mean to you?
The family is Robert Tunstall, 67, his daughter Karen Hartridge, 40, and her son, James Hartridge, 11.
When Tunstall was a kid in Memphis, racial prejudice was as much a part of life as breathing. Schools, libraries, the zoo and theaters were segregated. He spent most of his time with black people, though he got his first taste of what he calls "in-your-face" racism when he was 13. And though King preached social and economic equality, when he came to Memphis in 1968, a then-17-year-old Tunstall was full of fear.
"Dr. King wasn't universally popular, because of him being a lightning rod. And it wasn't him; it was the movement that he represented," he says. "And so even for those who you want to bring change to, there's fear, there is anxiety, there is concern over what will that look like."
Unlike her dad, who spent most of his time growing up around black people, Hartridge was constantly being made aware that she was in the minority. She grew up after legal segregation had ended and attended majority white schools as a child, where she was one of only a few black students. For her, King was a man who led a movement that had broken crucial legal barriers but hadn't really changed society.
"In high school, I dealt with a lot of racism. Being the only one in the class, in a lot of my classes, I'm asked: What do black people think about this?" she remembers. "It caused me to be very, very angry."
Her son, James, who's in fifth grade, learned a lot about King's legacy from his mom — not from school. His social studies textbook does not say where King died or that he was in Memphis in 1968 to support striking black sanitation workers.
"I'm fine with the first few chapters being about America, but I want the next few to be about what was going on in America, not just who started America," James says.
To hear the full interview , click the play button.
NOEL KING, HOST:
With Memphis focused this week on the life of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., we sat down with three generations of a Memphis family, and we asked them - what does Dr. King mean to you? And just a note - some of the language in this story is not appropriate for all audiences. Karen Hartridge invited us over to her house to meet her dad and her son. We went to the front door, and Karen rang the bell to let them know we were there. And then while we were standing on her stoop, she made this joke.
KAREN HARTRIDGE: Hope the police don't stop and say, what's this black girl trying to do trying to get in this house?
N. KING: It's a joke that's not really a joke, and we'll get back to it because her dad appears and lets us in.
ROBERT TUNSTALL: Y'all the welcome wagon.
HARTRIDGE: Yes (laughter).
TUNSTALL: How are you?
N. KING: Hello, sir, how are you doing?
TUNSTALL: Good morning, good morning.
N. KING: And he takes us upstairs, where he and Karen and his grandson, James, sit together on a big, blue sofa. Robert Tunstall is 67 years old. He's retired from the Federal Aviation Administration. He was an airways systems specialist, which meant long hours, lots of stress and making sure planes stayed up in the air. He also spent a lot of time on the road.
TUNSTALL: Six months and one day.
N. KING: When he was a kid in Memphis, racial prejudice was as much a part of life as breathing. Schools and libraries, the zoo and the theaters were all segregated. So he spent most of his time with other black people. Racism wasn't always in his face. And then when he was about 13, a mall opened.
TUNSTALL: The first mall we'd ever seen, so of course it was exciting. And, of course, it was in a white neighborhood called Whitehaven in fact (laughter).
N. KING: His dad took him to the mall for Christmas. They couldn't afford to buy anything, so they just sat, watching people shop.
TUNSTALL: And a little white girl came up to me. She might've been my age or a little younger. And she asked me if I had a light for a cigarette. And I looked at her and I told her, well, you really too young to be smoking. And she told me that she didn't have to take that from no nigger. And she spun on her heels and walked off. And so that was my first in your face.
N. KING: And then when Robert was 17, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis. And you might think that because Dr. King preached social and economic equality that a teenage Robert would welcome him. But that is not what Robert remembers. He remembers being afraid.
TUNSTALL: Dr. King wasn't universally popular because of him being a lightning rod. And it wasn't him. It was the movement that he represented. And so even for those who you want to bring change to, there was fear. There was anxiety. There was concern of what will that look like.
N. KING: Concern that things could get violent. And those concerns were borne out. Robert remembers sitting around the TV with his family and hearing the news that Dr. King had been killed.
TUNSTALL: I sit down. And I'm quiet because I don't know what to expect. It's more a moment of waiting for the next shoe to drop.
N. KING: And the shoe did drop. There were violent riots in cities all across this country. So for Robert Tunstall, generation one, King was not a perfect heroic figure. He was, as Robert puts it, a rabble-rouser, a complicated person. Now, here's where things take a turn. Robert's daughter, Karen, generation two, says by the time she was in school in the '80s and '90s, Dr. King's legacy had become decidedly uncomplicated, sanded down into a lesson for Black History Month.
HARTRIDGE: So you learned about Dr. King, the "I Have A Dream" speech. You learned that Rosa Parks sat on the bus. I think we had a Harriet Tubman segment, and that's pretty much it.
N. KING: Legal segregation had ended. Karen went to majority-white schools as a child. She took advanced classes and only had a few black classmates. So unlike her dad who spent most of his time around black people, Karen was constantly being made aware that she was in the minority.
HARTRIDGE: Being the only one in a lot of my classes, I'm asked, you know, when we get to a topic, well, what do black people think about this?
N. KING: Teachers would ask you that.
HARTRIDGE: Yeah, teachers would ask that. And I had to, you know, try and remember, well, I can't speak for an entire race of people.
N. KING: To Karen, King was a man who led a movement that had broken crucial legal barriers but hadn't entirely changed society. And it's society today that frightens her because her son, James, who turns 11 today and has cute, chubby cheeks and blue-rimmed glasses, James is also tall, and he's big for his age. Remember the joke Karen made on her stoop, how she hoped the police didn't stop us? This is how Karen copes. She makes jokes that aren't really jokes.
HARTRIDGE: I joked about how we're going to walk the neighborhood with my dad and my brother and my son so I can say, like, these three black men belong to me. They're safe. Please do not call, you know, and say a suspicious person is, you know, patrolling the community.
N. KING: While his mom and his grandpa are talking, James sits next to them on the couch waiting patiently until it's his turn. And once he gets a chance to talk, he tells me he knows a lot about Dr. King.
JAMES HARTRIDGE: I know that he came here for the sanitation workers because they were on strike because they didn't have safe conditions in the garbage truck. They got underpaid.
N. KING: What does it mean to be underpaid? Do you know that?
JAMES: We learned that underpaid means somebody over here who will get paid $50 an hour while you get paid three cents an hour.
N. KING: James learned these details from his mom, not from school.
JAMES: There was one page in our social studies book.
N. KING: Can I see the book? Do you have it with you?
He reads a little.
JAMES: One of the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. Over time, many African-Americans came to...
N. KING: This is not an old book. The copyright date is 2012.
It doesn't say where Dr. King died.
N. KING: And it doesn't say why he was in Memphis.
N. KING: So what does it mean to you that you know more - you learned more from your mom than you did from your school?
JAMES: I'm fine with the first few chapters being about America, but I want the next few to be what was going on in America, not just about who started America.
N. KING: And that really disappoints him because he says things are left out, like how brave Dr. King was, like a superhero. And then his grandpa says, yes, Dr. King was brave, but you and your mom are brave, too.
TUNSTALL: You go into hell - that don't worry about it 'cause you can come out of hell, just like you went into hell. So I wanted them to see that Dr. King is great, but you are just as great.
N. KING: On the way out, I ask Robert Tunstall - are you going to any of the commemoration events this week? And he says, no. He says, they're not really for people like him. They're expensive. And for a lot of the events, you need an invitation. He also says it's not like the city made this day a holiday. This week is about Dr. King's death, and a lot of people in Memphis just need to get on with the business of living.
(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "FELL IN LOVE IN A DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.