A torrential downpour fell on Memphis Feb. 1, 1968, and the history of the city and the country would change on this day. Echol Cole and Robert Walker were sanitation workers manning a garbage truck. To avoid the rain, the two men climbed into the back of the garbage truck. The compacter malfunctioned and the two men were crushed.
They city’s sanitation department opted to not compensate their families. The poor pay and filthy working conditions proved to be too much for the workers. A two-month long strike ensued and would only come to an end when civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis in April that year to speak to the strikers whose motto became “I am a man.”
In the last speech he would ever deliver, King foretold of his own possible death.
“But I’m not concerned about that now,” he said. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The Bluff City had now become a fulcrum for the national civil rights movement.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told attendees of the recent Greater Delta Region Conference that met in West Memphis last week that civil rights and rock-n-roll tourism are a major economic force in the city of Memphis and the outlying region that includes much of Northeast Arkansas.
“Let me brag on Memphis … it’s a city that changed the world,” Strickland said.
There was an estimated $3.5 billion in direct tourist spending in the Memphis area last year, according to state figures. That number doesn’t reflect indirect spending or how much those estimated 11 million tourists spent when they left the city to explore other places such as the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess, the Sultana Museum in Marion, or other tourist destinations in Northeast Arkansas.
Memphis’ top attraction is Beale Street, the longtime music corridor in the heart of the city. The street has clubs, restaurants and retail spots and is the most visited place in Tennessee. The National Civil Rights Museum, Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, Sun Studios, and the Memphis Zoo are among the top attractions in the city.
The city has built an I am a Man Plaza and the Lorraine Hotel is frequently visited. Memphis has the largest Bass Pro Shop in the world, located in the former Pyramid building that sits near the Mississippi River.
“I don’t hunt or fish, but it’s cool to see,” Strickland said.
Boat tours carrying tourists up and down the Mississippi River are becoming more and more popular, he said. Those tourists will need attractions on both sides of the river and Memphis hopes to play a vital role in attracting even more visitors to the region.
One city that sits just minutes from downtown Memphis could reap the benefits of this increase in tourism. There is an effort underway to build a grand museum profiling the plight of the Sultana, a ship that exploded on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, on April 27th, 1865. It was a transport ship that was carrying about 2,300 men, mostly prisoners of war, back north. It would only carry about one-sixth that number, and when it sank at least 1,200 died – the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
A nonprofit group, the Sultana Historic Preservation Society, is set to embark on an ambitious plan to build an interactive museum detailing the tragedy in Marion. Museum plans are being formulated and it could cost as little as $4 million or as much as $10 million based on the size of the building, the technology used and the fundraising efforts, Sultana Disaster Museum Project Director Dr. Louis Intres said.
Intres, who also spoke at the conference, said that less than 1% of the U.S. population is even aware that the Sultana happened. It terms of death and injuries, it would rank as the 11th most significant battle of the Civil War and the top 30 battles have been designated with state and national parks. The boat currently sits 37 feet below a soybean field in Crittenden County. A major motion picture about the disaster could also be in the works, he added.
“The story of the Sultana is much more intriguing than the story of the Titanic,” Intres said. “The loss of the Sultana was the last great event of the Civil War.”