Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the I-40 bridge protest in downtown Memphis, and more than 80 Memphians went to Tom Lee Park Sunday to honor the protesters and the work that still needs to be done.
The Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, a body of almost 30 organizations formed to create a safer and more unified community, hosted an event commemorating the six hours of protest on July 10, 2016.
“Today was about the education aspect,” said coalition organizer Al Lewis, while noting that the plan was never to recreate the protest on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge like “a lot of people thought.”
Last year’s protest, which formed semi-organically mere days after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, came almost a year after Memphis teen Darrius Stewart was killed by a police officer following a traffic stop.
Protesters streamed from the Civil Rights Museum to the FedEx Forum, and then overtook all six lanes of the bridge to Arkansas for several hours, halting commerce on a major transportation throughway.
The reunion Sunday alternated between street theatre skits and speakers, each one highlighting a different element in the larger struggle for economic and racial equality.
“Operation Oink”, the first street theater organized by the Coalition, took place at Overton Square in May.
Yesterday’s skits highlighted familiar themes of concern, including historic oppression born from slavery, modern-day policing, and heightened danger for undocumented immigrants in a post-Trump administration.
On behalf of BLM Memphis, Greg Woodberry read a hip-hop poetry fusion piece entitled “The Other Day.”
Woodberry’s words — “Don’t get bogged down by the way things seem to be going, even if there is a certain forecast for what’s going on, you can still resist that and make your own weather” — spoke to the reunion’s theme of endurance beyond opposition.
“I think people were pretty tuned in to what was going on,” said Woodberry. “That’s all anybody wants, is for you to just pay attention and see those issues.”
Though the headcount at Tom Lee Park numbered fewer than 100, a Memphis Police Department helicopter circled the park overhead during the speakers and skits.
Less than 50 yards away, three police officers on horseback and three more on foot kept close watch of the crowd. A police van equipped for multiple arrests was also in close proximity.
The heavy police presence at small peaceful protests coordinated by people of color is as an example of why police-community relationships have worsened in the year since the bridge protest, veterans of the bridge protest say.
Lewis, who was at Mason Temple when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his prophetic and final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” on the eve of his assassination in Memphis in 1968, said he witnessed King’s “conversion” from a rehearsed appearance to a firm resolve to come back to Memphis to further economic disruption as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“He came here as a stop — he wasn’t coming here to get involved, he was coming here to give a boost to the sanitation workers,” recalled Lewis. “His speech went from kind of a rehearsed thing to a, ‘You know what? I’m coming back down here to Memphis, and we gonna shut Memphis down.’”
For Lewis, recalling King’s endorsement of economic boycott methods is especially poignant on the anniversary of a protest that halted a lifeline for Memphis commerce for several hours.
Referencing the diverse crowd gathered at the park under the gaze of the MPD, Lewis notes with optimism that continuing the work of economic justice is now a goal shared by a broader range of backgrounds than ever before.
“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen this — a true integration of people not wanting the same thing other than the broad scope of justice,” said Lewis.
Two miles east of Tom Lee Park, Confederacy supporters gathered at Health Sciences Park for a very different type of celebration — the commemoration of the birthday of Confederate General and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The remains and equestrian statue of Forrest are key pieces in an ongoing citizen-led push to remove Memphis’ monuments honoring the Confederacy. The initiative has not been without ample opposition, including personal threats made against activist Tami Sawyer, who has been leading the charge for relocating Confederate monuments.
Before Confederate monuments can be moved from public parks, the Tennessee Historical Commission must grant a waiver to a law that prevents any removal, or renaming of war-related monuments.
The majority-white commission must approve the waiver by a two-thirds vote, and recently held a hearing as part of the process for adopting new rules to the waiver application process.
MLK50 reporter Molly Mulroy contributed to this story.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Read more from MLK50 on the bridge protest
“Take It To The Bridge,” The changes the bridge protest brought and the ones it didn’t, by MLK50 founder Wendi C. Thomas
When A City Fails To Hear, a photo essay by photographer Andrea Morales
Policing the protesters, a look at police-community relations by MLK50 contributor Micaela Watts
In Their Voices, a multimedia presentation by MLK50 contributor Molly Mulroy
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.