MEMPHIS — July 10 marks the anniversary of the largest spontaneous act of civil disobedience in the city’s modern history.
The spark: The police killings of two black men in less than 24 hours, Alton Sterling on July 5 in Louisiana and Philando Castile on July 6 in Minnesota.
The kindling, though, was the generations-old resentment and rage simmering in a majority-black city where the wealth and prosperity is concentrated in the white minority and many black people live on the economic margins.
On that Sunday afternoon, more than 1,000 people — almost all young and black — marched up the Hernando DeSoto bridge that crosses the Mississippi River into Arkansas, snarling traffic for hours. As the sun set, marking the sky with a pink stripe near the horizon, police sirens drowned out the protesters’ chants.
Their faces inches away from armed officers, protesters spoke their pain to power.
“This was the only opportunity that they would ever have in their life to even talk to a police officer in a way that won’t get them killed,” said organizer Jayanni Webster, one of the last people to leave the bridge.
“People in Memphis never have the opportunity to confront those in power… those who represent a failed state of the economy and the politics of this city that continually oppresses people.”
This loosely organized crowd resurrected the radical spirit of the exemplar of civil disobedience, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated nearly 50 years ago, on a motel balcony not two miles from the bridge. He came to town on behalf of striking black city sanitation workers.
Knowingly or not, the masses followed the instructions in one of King’s last speeches here: Apply economic pressure to force the city to provide better-paying jobs and end economic apartheid.
So on that Sunday afternoon, they blocked the span that every day funnels more than 37,000 vehicles east and west: The Interstate 40 bridge, with its iconic M-shaped arches.
If only for one night, protesters used their bodies to sever the lifeblood of the city where FedEx is headquartered, the city that bills itself as the nation’s distribution capital: Interstate commerce. Under their feet rumbled the muddy Mississippi, which once transported enslaved ancestors to brutal plantations.
“We waited 400 years to get justice, they’re going to wait — they’re going to wait! — to get across this bridge!” activist Devante Hill told a TV news reporter.
Several hours later, the protest ended peacefully and with no arrests. Then-interim Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings led most protesters away with the promise of a public forum the next day.
The forum was a disaster and the city’s response frustrating, say most organizers. In the year since, little has changed here in the second poorest large metro area in the nation, in a city where 47 percent of black children live in poverty.
But organizers scoffed at the city’s attempt at spin.
“If there’s a Memphis model, it’s that police are the solution to everything,” said Paul Garner of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. “We still have zero homeless centers that are free, we still have a bus system that is racist and doesn’t meet the needs of people in this city and there’s no political will, it seems, to do anything.”
Worse, the city now practices the sort of intimidation that draws from the playbooks of J. Edgar Hoover, say several community organizers. In February, more than 75 people — most attendees at recent protests — discovered they’d been put on a blacklist created by police and signed by the mayor. The list prompted two lawsuits alleging illegal police surveillance.
“The relationship between the MPD and the community has really spread apart,” said Keedran Franklin, who was on the bridge and the blacklist.
But the people, they’re closer than ever. On the front lines with veterans such as the the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center are new troops, including Memphis Feminist Collective, the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter, Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition, Showing Up for Racial Justice Memphis, Memphis Bus Riders Union, Memphis Voices For Palestine and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens.
It will take an army, they say, to resist the expansion of the police state and a national political scene that caters to the rich, leaving everyone else behind.
“That’s why you see communities respond together so quick,” said community activist Nour Hantouli, who was on the bridge that night. “The bad news is that we’re all we’ve got, but the good news is we’re all we got.”
How it started
In the 21 hours between the July 5 shooting death of Alton Sterling and the July 6 shooting death of Philando Castile, Hill, 25, created a flyer for the July 10 demonstration on his phone. Although the flyer bore the #BlackLivesMatterMemphis hashtag, the demonstration wasn’t sponsored by the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter.
The plans were simple: A 6 p.m. protest outside the FedEx Forum, home to the Memphis Grizzlies. By 5:30 p.m., Hill estimates, 500 people were waiting. Rallings spoke to the crowd briefly and then left.
Those gathered listened to impromptu remarks delivered via megaphone.
“It didn’t seem to be a really structured situation,” said Hantouli, 27. “It was just individuals speaking.”
Some wanted to march several blocks north to 201, the nickname for the county jail at that address on Poplar Avenue. Others suggested interrupting business at the Bass Pro Shops store beyond the bridge.
The crowd started to splinter, but the people didn’t disperse.
“People are starting to move, but we don’t know where we’re moving to,” said Shahidah Jones of the city’s Official Black Lives Matter chapter.
“We shut that bridge down”
For months, if not years, local organizers and activists toyed with the idea of shutting down the bridge.
But on that day, the impetus had no single author, as if channeling Black Lives Matters’ commitment to a leader-full — not leaderless as critics describe it — movement.
Remembered Hill, who created the flyer: “We walked right up by the Cook Convention Center, there was an officer there, and we were like, ‘You know what, we’re going up on the bridge.’”
Said Garner, 28: “I remember looking at Antonio (Cathey) from Fight for $15 and it was like: Take it to the bridge.”
Franklin, 31, was there with friend and fellow activist Frank Gottie, a former gang member.
“I turned to Frank and said, ‘We’re not fixin’ to go to 201, we’re going to go shut that motherf*ckin’ bridge down. We shut that bridge down and I betcha they listen then,’” Franklin said.
Webster, 29, was relaxing at home with her boyfriend when she got a text message from a friend. “It said that literally thousands and thousands of people were coming down to the FedEx Forum and expressing their outrage and protesting,” said Webster, an organizer with the United Campus Workers.
Minutes later, her friend texted again. They were taking the bridge.
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She sent me a picture of people going to the bridge. I looked over at my boyfriend and said, ‘We got to go.’ We literally just put on whatever we could and we ran out of the house.”
Webster made it up the ramp before police blocked access.
“The most beautiful thing”
Rev. Earle Fisher also managed to make it onto the bridge. He’d been at home when he got a call from an anxious Jones, pleading with him to come Downtown.
“I was happy as sh*t, because I knew it would take a moment like that to really change the trajectory of what the movement in Memphis would look like,” said Fisher, 38, of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition and pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Some drivers stuck in traffic rolled down their windows and blasted their radios, adding a rap soundtrack to the movement. All that was missing, joked longtime organizer Garner, was beer and barbecue. (See Garner’s video of protesters walking onto the bridge.)
“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen since doing this work,” he said. “You had guys who were Bloods and guys who were Crips, who said maybe I’m flying this color or this color but today I’m just black.”
“It was like a family reunion,” Jones said. “I saw people I hadn’t seen in years.”
Demonstrators blocked the lanes coming east and west. The atmosphere was nearly festive, except for the reasons that drew people onto the bridge.
“A lot of people were crying together, but it was like tears of joy, because a lot of people were hurt. That’s the only reason why we were up there,” Franklin said. “Not being heard, not being felt, not enough resources.”
At the invitation of a truck driver caught in traffic, protesters climbed on top of the tractor trailer.
“It was a very remarkable sign of solidarity from someone who is caught in the very inconvenient position of that demonstration,” Hantouli said. “Of course, that got turned into ‘thugs trashing property,’ you know, the typical racist narrative.”
After about 45 minutes, Jones recalled, a wave of police arrived. What had been a passionate protest turned tense as a police van, lights flashing, crept up the bridge. The van’s windows were blocked out.
“People start getting a little apprehensive, like what they doing, what’s in the back,” Jones said. “We are here directly as a result of police killings, so that instantly starts to change the energy.”
Rumors started to circulate — of water cannons under the bridge, of snarling police dogs and tear gas at the ready.
Chanel Trice, 25, a fourth-year dental student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, carried a sign that read #BlackLivesMatter, #PhilandoCastile and #Dontshoot. She spotted something flying overhead.
“That’s when I got frightened. When I saw drones, like ‘They may shower us with pepper spray,’” said Trice, in Memphis for the summer to do research. (The drones may have been operated by news outlets; MPD has said it does not use drones.)
As more police arrived, small groups of protesters walked up to confront a wall of stone-faced police with demands that echoed King on March 18, 1968, at Mason Temple.
“So we assemble here tonight…. to say, ‘We are tired,’” King said to a capacity audience gathered to support the black sanitation workers’ strike, then in its 37th day.
“We are tired of being at the bottom. We are tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”
That same weary frustration surfaced in signs that read “Freedom, freedom, where are you?” and “If I comply, will I still die?”
“People are just saying they’re tired,” recalled Jones. “They want jobs. People are saying that basically, this can’t be life.”
They spoke of their frustration with a juvenile court that treats black children more harshly than white ones, a state too eager to suspend driver’s licenses, fees set too high for many drivers to get their licenses back, bail set with no regard to the accused’s ability to pay and a rise in low-paying, temporary jobs.
“All of the things we know are wrong in Memphis,” Jones said, “people were saying on that bridge.”
A peaceful, if not productive, end
Hill, who’d worked for U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, remembered the advice he’d gotten from Georgia congressman John Lewis, who as a young man was beaten by police during the 1965 Bloody Sunday voting rights march in Selma, Alabama.
Lewis told Hill: I can’t tell you to break the law, but I can tell you how to break it.
“Bloodshed doesn’t affect our city leaders, money does,” Hill said. “Red doesn’t affect them, green does…. At this point, we’re costing the city a lot of money and we’re keeping a lot of money from coming into the city.”
Many of the longtime organizers and activists there said they weren’t familiar with Hill, who said the bridge protest was his 13th major demonstration and the second large one he’s led. A picture of Hill at a protest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray made Buzzfeed’s list of the 50 most powerful photos in American history.
Hill said he started negotiating with Rallings, then interim police director while a national search was conducted. If Rallings would hold a forum the next day to hear their concerns, Hill would support Rallings’ bid for the top job.
Hill said he told Rallings: “We’re going to be fighting to put you in position — don’t screw it up.”
Separately, Franklin and Fisher were trading text messages with Rallings Fisher recalled that Hill was at least 50 yards away, on the south side of the bridge.
Franklin’s phone was dead, so with Fisher, he composed a message to Rallings. Fisher texted it from his phone to Rallings.
“You have agreed to meet us in front of the FedEx forum at 930 to discuss policy changes and criminal justice reform. No arrests. March with us. Please reply in affirmation,” read the text to Rallings at 8:20 p.m.
“Yes sir, let’s move now. I will lead the March,” read the reply.
Others weren’t ready to leave. “We had this opportunity to ask for so much more. Police directors come and go,” said Garner, a longtime activist who teaches organizing strategy. He’d hoped the national search would bring in a reformer from the outside.
Webster, another longtime organizer, also didn’t want to end the protest so quickly. “Some of us who have been embedded in the activist community for a long time said, ‘No, we’re going to occupy this bridge until we can have some demands met,’” Webster said.
“It was really an opportunity, because at that point, we had a lot more control than we would ever have on a normal day in Memphis.”
Moments later, Hill, Franklin, Fisher, Rallings and a few others linked arms, leading more than half of the people off the bridge and back to FedEx Forum.
“I remember at one point (Rallings) was really concerned, because people were getting loud,” Fisher said. “I said to him, ‘That’s not danger, that’s passion. You need to let the people express themselves. Ain’t nobody in danger.’”
At the arena, Rallings issued his own demand, one that struck some as unreasonable and certainly beyond the control of those present. “If y’all want to show me something,” Rallings told the crowd, “show me 30 days of no killing.”
“Rallings seemed sincere that night,” Franklin said. “We shared a bottle of water walking off that bridge and we actually connected. Like, I saw the humanity in him, you know?”
After Rallings left, more demonstrators followed. Soon, the group’s numbers were down to several dozen.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is it. We’re going to jail tonight,’” Hantouli recalled. Those willing to be arrested wrote emergency contact phone numbers on the arms of those who planned to leave before police brought out handcuffs.
At the end, a line of Memphis cops, holding riot shields in one hand and black sticks in the other, cleared the bridge.
Move, they shouted, punctuating their orders with raps on their plastic shields. More than five hours after the occupation began, the last holdouts faced the officers, raised their hands above their heads and backed off the bridge.
The unsatisfying aftermath
The next day’s public forum would be at Greater Imani Church, which has not played a role in recent activist movements. (Two weeks later, the church held a Blue Sunday service to support law enforcement.)
Meeting with city leaders so soon was a mistake, conceded Hill.
With no time to plan, community organizers sparred with each other moments before going on stage. The church couldn’t hold all of those who wanted in. Trice, the dental student, was turned away. Garner watched from an overflow room.
The July 11 forum quickly devolved into a shouting match and venting session. Hill demanded to know why Strickland wouldn’t name Rallings director on the spot. The mayor, who reminded the audience that he’d promised to do a national search for the job, was booed. Citizens wanted their turn at the microphone, but as the meeting ran long, they were asked to write their questions to the city on notecards.
Strickland’s administration promised to respond in writing within 30 days and did. Some answers noted — accurately — that the concern didn’t fall under his purview, but organizers felt like Strickland, the first white mayor the city had elected in more than 20 years, was passing the buck.
“The mayor… said ‘Send us your cards,’ and then proceeded to answer the questions like ‘Y’all don’t really know what you want, because that’s not my job as the mayor,’ versus saying, ‘I understand that this is an issue, here’s how we can advocate for this, here’s a plan for how this can change,’” Jones said.
Franklin, who helped form the Coalition of Concerned Citizens in response to the bridge protest, thought Rallings had broken his promise to discuss real issues and gave priority to politicians, not citizens.
“While you honored your staff for keeping the peace, you failed to honor the citizens who also kept the peace,” wrote the coalition in an email sent to Rallings July 12. “You made a mockery of our agreement…. This says to us that you are not a man of your word.”
Rallings disputes the coalition’s account.
“I was asked to have the mayor there, I delivered. I was asked to be there, I delivered. If you go back and look at the tapes, we didn’t control the conversation.… We’re just there as we were requested to just have the conversation,” he said.
Strickland declined an interview. However, his spokeswoman Ursula Madden wrote in an email that each of the protesters’ four demands have been met, including naming Rallings as police director, which the mayor did on Aug. 7.
In response to the demand for more community programming, 16 of the city’s 19 library branches now have extended hours.
According to Madden, the demand for diversity training has been met, but demonstrators asked that the training be led by organizers, which hasn’t occurred.
The mayor has also delivered on the demand for an increase in minority contracting, Madden wrote.
When Strickland took office in January 2016, nearly 13 percent of city contracts went to minority and women-owned businesses. By the end of March, that rose to 20 percent, or an increase of 53 percent.
Of that 20 percent, half went to black-owned businesses; the other half went to businesses owned by white women, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. African-Americans make up 63 percent of the city’s population and the most recent federal data shows that less than 1 percent of business receipts citywide go to black businesses.
Activists move full speed ahead
Since July 10, the pace and intensity of activism has picked up.
In July activists picketed The Commercial Appeal to protest a headline the editor admitted was racially insensitive; hosted an expo for ex-offenders to get their criminal records expunged and voting rights restored; protested outside Graceland; and rallied for the first anniversary of the July 17, 2015, police shooting death of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart.
Chamber president Phil Trenary and Ernest Strickland, senior vice president of workforce development, met outside to talk with the picketers.
“What’s most disturbing on your website is that the Chamber invites companies in because they say it’s a city that has a cheap workforce,” said Al Lewis of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens. “That’s rather disturbing to us, because that’s perpetuating poverty.” (The Chamber’s website says, “Memphis offers a diverse, metropolitan workforce at wage rates that are lower than most other parts of the country.”)
Right there on the sidewalk, the coalition and the Chamber scheduled a meeting, at which they discussed the problems with temporary job agencies, which often don’t offer decent wages or opportunities for advancement. Together they came up with a plan to create a “gold standard” for agencies committed to a new sort of temp work: Training, Employment, Mentoring and Promotion.
“If you’re a temp agency and someone comes to work with you, you’re taking ownership of that person’s career pathway,” Trenary said.
The Chamber has also connected the coalition to business incubators and other resources to support their organizing.
“The relationship is so good, we see each other, it’s an embrace,” said Franklin, who now works as an organizer with Fight for $15, a national movement to boost pay for and bring union rights to low-wage workers.
“There have been times where they’ve said, ‘Just come in and have lunch.’ And that was a total 180 from what we got from the administration.
“With the mayor, when we went and sat down with him, he was 15 minutes late for the meeting and it was him trying to show his power.”
Frustration with city, police grows
All but one of the demonstrators MLK50 interviewed say that the administration remains tone-deaf and the police director and mayor out-of-touch.
Hill, who is estranged from other organizers, is the exception.
“I get a lot of bad flack for partnering with the city, but it’s our city,” Hill said.
“In the past four months, the city has become intentional about bringing more jobs into the city and connecting people to those resources,” he said, pointing to last month’s My Brother’s Keeper job fair that drew hundreds of young black men. “I can give them credit for it.”
Still, he’s not without his criticism. Hill was arrested on two old warrants for nonviolent offenses just days after the bridge protest. The arrest was “without a doubt” payback for his activism, he said. Rallings is “showing more loyalty to the oppressor.”
Garner, Franklin and Fisher all suspect that police have been monitoring them since the bridge protest.
Franklin said he even asked Rallings directly to be left alone. “I was like, man, you gotta tell them to quit following me…. You know what’s going on. Your silence is violence.”
His concerns are warranted: MPD has a long history of illegally monitoring activists, dating back to 1965, when the department created a domestic spy unit that kept secret files on citizens who engaged in what officials considered controversial activities, according to an ACLU timeline.
In 1968, then-mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist who made his fortune from a family laundry business, authorized two undercover officers to spy on sanitation workers’ unionizing efforts.
After King’s death, the investigation expanded to include groups like the NAACP, ACLU and public school employees. When the illegal surveillance was uncovered, rather than turn over secret files, Memphis police burned 10 file cabinets full of documents.
In 1978, a federal consent decree forbade the police to monitor citizens who engage in constitutionally protected activities, including dissent against the government.
On August 15, protesters descended on Graceland at the candlelight vigil during Elvis Week. At checkpoints, police kept black protesters behind barricades, but waved white protesters through, as if only white people could be Elvis fans.
In response, protesters sued the city and Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages Graceland. “The decision as to which citizens were allowed to attend the public vigil and which citizens were denied access to the public vigil, was based on the race of the citizens,” the complaint said.
But it was a die-in in December that many believe prompted the harshest pushback from the city. In 16-degree weather, several people lay motionless in the front yard of the mayor’s home in East Memphis.
“Graceland killed the First Amendment, that’s why we’re here,” Franklin said on his Facebook Live video.
By blocking citizens from walking down Elvis Presley Boulevard near Graceland during the August protest, the police and city violated protesters’ First Amendment rights, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens claimed.
In February, news broke that the names of dozens of protesters had been added to a police blacklist, which meant they had to have a police escort while in City Hall. Franklin, Gottie, Fisher, Webster and Garner were all on the list. So were the mother and aunt of Darrius Stewart, the teen killed by police. Neither woman was at the die-in.
Rallings refused to explain the criteria for the list, but denied there was any political motivation. Claiming that the city violated the 1978 consent decree, a group of activists and the ACLU sued. Another suit was filed on behalf of several Fight for $15 organizers.
Citizens’ attempts to hold police accountable suffered a setback in May, when Rallings declined to take any further action in three police brutality complaints and a First Amendment violation complaint upheld by the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB).
Also earlier this year, anonymous donors gave $6.1 million to the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission, which then gave the city a $6.1 million grant for police bonuses. Neither the commission or the mayor will say where the money came from, prompting concerns that the deep pockets of the well-connected are paying for more police protection.
The pushback can be felt at the state level, too. Earlier this year, in a move critics say is designed to target protesters, the Tennessee Legislature passed a law increasing the fine from $50 to $200 for blocking a public roadway.
Earlier in the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would protect drivers who struck anyone who was blocking public roads or highways. The bill died in subcommittee.
“We’ve got to see it through”
Some organizers wonder if the city’s heavy-handed response is a reflection of the new world order under President Trump, who campaigned on a “law and order” platform, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has made clear his uncritical support for law enforcement and disdain for federal corrective action for poorly performing police departments.
The era of aggressive civil rights protections under President Obama seems long ago. Organizers and activists know that no federal cavalry will come to their rescue.
Undeterred, they have made Frederick Douglass’ words their mantra: Power concedes nothing without a demand.
April 4 brought a massive march down Main Street on the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination. Several hundred marchers, including people who traveled to Memphis from St. Louis, Nashville and New Orleans, made their way toward the National Civil Rights Museum as the Talladega College marching band played.
At 6:01 p.m., the exact time when the fatal shot that killed King rang out, the marchers stopped for a moment of silence.
Loeb’s refusal to negotiate with sanitation workers brought King to town; Time magazine blamed Loeb for King’s death.
Also in May, activists protested U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance in Memphis, where the county’s top elected officials floated the idea of releasing from federal oversight the county’s juvenile court, which the Department of Justice found treats black children more harshly than white children.
In the auditorium of Bruce Elementary School, dozens of people — black, white, young and old, a descendant of slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest and descendants of slaves — spoke out against the monuments, namely those of Forrest and the singular Confederate States president Jefferson Davis, that sit in city parks.
“I don’t understand why we still have statues of people who didn’t want us to be anything,” said 15-year-old Beyonce Cox. “They didn’t want us African-Americans to have power, they wanted us to stay down.”
On April 3, 1968, in what would be his last speech, King told the sanitation workers’ supporters that “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”
“Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis,” King said at Mason Temple. “We’ve got to see it through.”
That’s what today’s activists are doing, said Jones, from the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter.
“I think that Dr. King would feel like we feel — this duality of being proud of the work we’re doing and being sad that we’re still doing it,” she said.
Will there be another moment like July 10?
“I’m sure there will, because nothing has changed,” Jones said.
“When people get tired and people get overwhelmed and feel like they have nothing else to lose, that’s when they come out. And so I think that the next time, it won’t be joyous and they will be more willing to stand and not give in to a ‘Let’s hold hands and walk off the bridge.’”
The bridge protest was a crystallizing moment for the movement, said organizer Fisher, and it forced city leaders to recognize the disruptive potential of grassroots organizing power.
“I think it’s fair to say, they took us a lot more seriously after the bridge than they did before,” he said.
“Shutting it down is always an option.”
MLK50 reporter Micaela Watts and photographer Andrea Morales contributed to this story, which was edited by Peggy Burch.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.