It’s only a matter of time, I think, before Memphis’ statues of Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest fall.
These Confederate monuments were erected as a visual reminder that black people must stay in their place. That place is subordinate, in the back, at the bottom, on the fringes, at the margins.
Voter suppression and voter ID laws keep black people at the back, excluded from the political process by the lie of widespread voter fraud.
State laws (like Tennessee’s) that prevent municipalities from passing living wage ordinances keep black people at the margins, trapped in low-wage jobs and financially precarious conditions even while companies rake in the profits. (State Sen. Mark Norris, who is being considered for a federal judgeship, voted in favor of this law.)
Hyper-segregated neighborhoods (Memphis is #4 on a list of nation’s most segregated cities) and public school funding tied to property taxes all but guarantees a subpar education for most black children. (Exhibit A: Shelby County’s mostly white suburban school districts provide “an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children” according to EdBuild’s 2017 report “Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts.”)
Punitive criminal justice policy — set in Shelby County by a 50-member quasi-governmental Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission, made up mostly of white men in a county that’s majority black — disproportionately affects black people. Although the crime commission’s outsized influence on public policy, its meetings are private and its operations hidden from taxpayers and voters.
And even though there’s no evidence that stiffer sentences deter criminals, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich and others spend (waste?) public money on meaningless tough-on-crime campaigns like the $300,000 “Fed Up” gun crime campaign announced last month.
I want to believe that the majority of Americans (if not the majority of white evangelicals who remain the most ardent supporters of the current occupant of the White House or the current occupant of the White House himself) understand why a statue of a slave trader, Klansman and/or Confederate general shouldn’t stand on any public land, especially in a public park in a city that’s 63 percent black.
But what about those of us who want the monuments to fall? Do we see the connection between the Confederacy and racist public policies today? Do we see how those public policies perpetuate economic injustice against African-Americans?
Do we remember that it was economic justice that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis nearly 50 years ago?
King said, “It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle.”
We acknowledge the racism of the monuments. What racism do we deny?
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.