I’ve criticized ESPN’s Bill Simmons 1,000 times in 1,000 columns. That’s what happens when you are perhaps the most read sports columnist in the country. Everything you write becomes a point of reference. When I’m writing or speaking about why I dig the WNBA or abhor the joyless Bill Belichick, Simmons’s disdain for women’s hoops or adoration of Belichick becomes my go-to example of the ways in which those at the heights of sports journalism have opinions that—in my humble view—are dead wrong.
But just as I think the scrutiny Bill Simmons receives is necessary, it’s also important to defend him from criticism that is not only unfair but actually politically backward. Simmons is being lambasted in numerous outlets for comments he made about Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Memphis where the hometown Grizzlies were put out of their misery by the San Antonio Spurs. On his BS Report, Simmons spoke at length with Jalen Rose and Dave Jacoby about visiting Memphis and, while walking with Jalen Rose in search for a barbecue, stumbling upon the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As Jalen Rose said, when they were confronted with the building that saw King’s death, his “heart stopped.” Simmons spoke in detail about being “blown away,” and recounted how it had been restored and kept alive after a fight with many in the city who wanted it bulldozed. Jalen Rose said, “I was impressed with Memphis. When you have a horrific incident take place like King’s assassination, either you embrace it or you run from it.”
Simmons then related the assassination to the feel of the Memphis crowd, writing, “I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
This quote, taken entirely out of context, has been the basis of the flaying of Simmons. People can read examples, if curious, here and here. All the critiques comprise a rather thin gruel. Not only is it a slender thread to grasp, but the criticism is also wrong. Memphis is a small jewel of a city with a population of less than 700,000 people. It’s also in numerous ways defined by the events of 1968, and I’m not even just talking about Dr. King’s assassination. People should read Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael Honey. This was a city in 1968 that ran in a fashion more reminiscent of 1868. As Honey writes, “Since many of the white bosses came from the plantations themselves, they treated black workers much like landlords in the Mississippi Delta treated their sharecroppers and tenants.”
Most city employees were unionized. Most city employees were also white. But the 1,300 African-American sanitation workers were not allowed union recognition. The shocking deaths of two workers in a hydraulic trash compacter broke the camel’s back, sparking a 1,300-person sanitation strike that challenged every last power relationship in Memphis. Their slogan, famously, was “I am a MAN!”
Dr. King came to Memphis because he saw their struggle as something that could launch a new stage in the civil rights movement: one that put the question of multiracial economic justice at the heart of the Black Freedom Struggle. As he said to the workers in Memphis days before his death, “With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close, and a new era came into being. Now, our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?”
It was only in the aftermath of King’s assassination, the subsequent urban uprising, and as Honey points out, “the largest domestic deployment of military forces since the Civil War” that they finally won their union. Their victory, tragically, did not find purchase across the city. Today, Memphis has one of the highest urban poverty rates in the United States, with 85 percent of its public school students categorized as “economically disadvantaged.” 82 percent of the “economically disadvantaged” are African-American.
What does any of this have to do with Bill Simmons? An arena full of fans is a collective space, and Simmons was linking the shadow of struggle, bloodshed and tragedy with the mentality in this collective space. Some may argue that given the youth or whiteness of the crowd, this is at best a foolish observation. But King’s death—of course—doesn’t just weigh on the psyche of those who remember it. As for the demographics of the crowd, the very greatness of what King and the sanitation workers did was that they made the struggle involve everyone, not merely the poor and people of color. Those in power were afflicted with King’s vision of true equality, a vision that threatened their perch atop the city. The message I received from listening to the podcast in its entirety is that sports doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the past is not always past. Criticize Bill Simmons by all means. I may again by my next column, but not for this. He—and Jalen Rose—should be applauded for reminding everyone that Memphis wears its scars openly for the world to see. After all, they’re our scars as well.
On Wednesday night, Seattle became the seventh city in eight weeks to host a one-day fast food strike. Read Josh Eidelson's report.