MEMPHIS—It was one of the earlier clues that aesthetics would trump reality as the city began to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
On signage plastered on buses and garbage trucks, draped outside city hall and hanging from downtown light poles is the phrase “I Am Memphis.”
The city’s slogan, part of a branding campaign, is an unimaginative and crude adaptation of 1,300 black sanitation workers’ 1968 slogan “I Am A Man.” From the workers’ strike to protest poverty wages, the lack of union rights, and dangerous working conditions emerged their rallying cry. Their plight—which dovetailed with King’s growing focus on economic justice as the path to black liberation— drew the Baptist preacher to town.
The strikers’ slogan, some union leaders say, isn’t the city’s to co-opt. And in fact, the city’s catchphrase is better framed as a question: What is Memphis, 50 years after King was killed here defending underpaid black men?
It is the poorest large metropolitan area in the nation. It is a city where 52 percent of black children live below the poverty line. It is the anchor of a region that markets itself around distribution and warehouse jobs—most filled by African Americans—that have never paid enough to live on.
In many ways, Memphis is still a city that has squandered King’s sacrifice.
For half of my life, I’ve lived in Memphis and I’ve been a journalist for longer than that, including 11 years as the metro columnist at the daily paper.
Years ago, in anticipation of this moment, I bought the domain name, MLK50.com. It is now home to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, my yearlong nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis.
More than most, I wrestle with what it means to honor King in a city that is 64 percent black, but where, as the local saying goes, black people are in charge but white people are in control.
African-Americans hold about half of city council and county commission seats. But Shelby County has never had a black district attorney or a black juvenile court judge. Follow the money (and much of the true power) to the Fortune 500 companies’ c-suites, real estate titans, and financial industry rainmakers, and you will find only a handful of black faces.
I started MLK50.com to call out these disparities. Every day, I try not to succumb to the Southern pressures of politeness.
Wealthy power brokers here aren’t used to having their business practices interrogated. If they were ever familiar with King’s brutal critique of capitalism—which he said “continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor”—they’ve since forgotten.
A charitable interpretation would label this a misremembering. The truth is that we practice collective hypocrisy, performative adoration and vigorous erasure of King’s demand for “a radical redistribution of economic power.”
In just days, tens of thousands of visitors will descend on Memphis. There will be union leaders eager to trade on King’s support of organized labor; young activists and their elders; politicians who see value in their proximity to, if not practice of, civil rights; tourists eager to partake in anniversary events; and parachute journalists susceptible to swallowing the city’s talking points.
Like any good Southern hosts, we are getting ready for company. We want to be seen as modern and progressive, the kind of place where Amazon would want to build its third headquarters. (We did not make the list of finalists.) We are tired of the unflattering, if accurate, comparisons to our big-city neighbor Nashville, where the poverty and crime rates are lower and the college graduation rates higher.
City leaders’ desire to present a polished image to the world sometimes veers into desperation. It is as if we’re fluffing the couch cushions and hoping our guests don’t notice the holes in the roof.
To be fair, there is no manual on how to shake the civic shame of being the city where King was killed. Best municipal practices offer no guides for marking a milestone anniversary, so we bumble along.
When we get it right, it’s glorious.
Capitalizing on what King called the “fierce urgency of now,” last summer activists demanded that the city’s Confederate monuments come down by April 4. Mayor Jim Strickland promised they would, and in December, the Memphis City Council found a way to circumvent the state law that prohibited the removal of historical monuments in public parks. At 9:01 p.m. on December 20, cranes lifted the monuments from their pedestals. Crowds cheered as the equestrian statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slaver and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was separated from its throne.
A multiracial MLK50 clergy committee, convened by the National Civil Rights Museum, chose to align itself with the rebirth of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Led by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is intersectional, LGBTQ-affirming, and calls for massive civil disobedience.
“We cannot keep having these celebrations and commemorations, and remembering what was done then and abdicating our responsibility to do what needs to be done now,” thundered Barber in Memphis last fall.
When we get it wrong, it’s embarrassing. Take the city’s branding campaign, and its accompanying “reverse march,” a warped version of the ill-fated demonstration King tried to lead from Clayborn Temple to City Hall on March 28, 1968. Looting marred the original protest, which ended when police chased marchers back to the church, where many were beaten and tear gassed.
The city’s February “I Am Memphis” reverse march was not to be; a forecast of rain forced the event into a downtown performing arts venue. From the stage, Strickland thanked some of the surviving strikers, who sat in the front rows, for their courage.
And then the invited guest, CNN political commentator and activist Angela Rye, chastised the city’s lack of progress.
“You wanted to have a reverse march today and you couldn’t, and you couldn’t because we can’t substantially honor progress that doesn’t exist,” she said, as the mayor looked on, stone-faced.
“The black child poverty rate is the highest in the nation… The City of Memphis spends more on policing than on education,” she went on.
“There’s unlawful surveillance of activists and grassroots leaders,” she said, a reference to the pending ACLU lawsuit that alleges that the city is surveilling local activists. A 1978 federal consent decree bars the Memphis Police Department from monitoring constitutionally protected political activity, as an investigation found the department did in the 1960s and 1970s.
Any hope the mayor had that the presence of a black activist would repair his tattered reputation with grassroots leaders was shattered. (When Rye left the theater, she went just a few blocks east to Clayborn Temple, where a much smaller crowd was gathered for AFSCME’s Working People’s Day of Action.)
Smarting from Rye’s critique, Strickland and his surrogates lashed out. In an email to city residents, Strickland labeled Rye as an outside agitator, echoing the scorn white Southerners ladled on people like King generations before.
He listed what passes for progress to him, such as hiring more police officers and spending more city dollars with minority businesses. (The email didn’t mention the city’s decision to offer some benefits to part-time employees, or that the city pays all its permanent workers at least $12 an hour – policies that King would applaud.)
But are politicians—especially those who, like the mayor, are seeking re-election—reliable narrators of how far we’ve come?
Rev. Dr. Noel G.L. Hutchinson doesn’t think so and said as much in a February column published in the daily newspaper under the headline: “Mr. Mayor, Memphis needs progress, not PR”:
Leave the marches to someone else, and support commemorations while you work on the city. The crime and blight that you ran on in your campaign still grow in Memphis like kudzu. Potholes all over the city double as asphalt swimming pools. Yet, we focus on commemoration.
A few days after Rye’s appearance came the much-anticipated release of the “Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK,” commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum and produced by the University of Memphis.
Casting another cloud over the mayor’s sunny outlook, the report had only one bit of good news: Education. In Shelby County, which Memphis anchors, the percentage of African Americans with a high school diploma soared from 15.5 percent in 1960 to 85.5 percent in 2016. In 1960, only 2 percent of black county residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher. By 2016, nearly 20 percent did.
But graduation rates still lag behind that of whites. And although today more than half of blacks hold white-collar jobs, that hasn’t translated into more money in black pockets; the median household income of the county’s black residents is still stubbornly half of that of whites, a pattern that’s held true since the 1950s.
A frustration at the persistent economic inequality bubbles up at the most inopportune times, such as earlier this month, when a bipartisan group of politicians, led by Congressman John Lewis, made a civil rights history stop here.
They went to Mason Temple, the last church at which King preached.
During an interview, Elmore Nickleberry, one of two 1968 strikers who still works for the city public works’ department, took the opportunity to bemoan his low pay. After more than 50 years on the job, he makes just $17 an hour.
And although the city has given each of the surviving strikers $50,000 tax free, to make up for a shortfall in their retirement funds, it wasn’t enough, Nickleberry said. He intended to ask for more.
I expect April 4 will be messy, as all movement making is.
“Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed… to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured,” King wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
But instead of exposure, I worry that we will have a cover-up. King’s legacy has been ground down, strained to remove all the sharp edges and stuffed into a casing of respectability by city officials and civic leaders. Among the corporate sponsors of the museum’s MLK50 events are global corporations that don’t pay their workers a living wage.
The King who was killed here was persecuted by the FBI, loathed by most white residents and shunned by a fair share of black residents.
The King that the city wants us to remember is honored with a flower planting campaign. To promote “unity, community fellowship and pride,” the city will distribute 50,000 free seed packets to grow red flowers.
Instead of inelegant attempts to look good (red to remember a man who bled to death?), we should acknowledge the ugly reality and make good on King’s sacrifice.
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” King exhorted striking sanitation workers and their families the night before his death.
“Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”