On the drizzly, cold night when Memphis’ Confederate monuments were plucked from downtown parks by large construction cranes, citizens and elected officials flocked to the sites, chanting familiar rally cries, cheering on anonymous workers tasked with removal.
Though activists and elected officials celebrated the same end, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the role of activists who’d applied steady pressure to remove statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a bust of Confederate Col. Charles Didier Dreux. Their presence, many argued, represented a kind of Confederate sovereignty over the city.
Asked during Dec. 20 press conference about citizens’ influence, Strickland declined the opportunity to acknowledge #TakeEmDown901 or its creator, a black woman, Tami Sawyer.
“We thank them for supporting our position,” said Strickland, the city’s first white mayor in more than 20 years.
The snub was par for the course in a year of heightened activism, met with a mute city government. The silence, a peculiar brand of Southern respectability politics, read as disrespect for a new generation of homegrown activists. To some, Strickland’s attitude read as tone deaf in a year of reckoning with the power of the black woman’s voice and vote: Consider the the U.S. Senate race in Alabama where African-American women clinched the win for Democrat Doug Jones over accused sexual abuser Roy Moore.
With fewer than 100 days until the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in this city, there’s little evidence of a detente or recognition of the symbiosis between governance and people power. The strained relationship echoes 1968, when anti-union, segregationist Mayor Henry Loeb directed police to monitor civil rights activists.
What city officials don’t recognize, others have. The Commercial Appeal columnist David Waters named the “Citizen Activist” as the 2017 Person of the Year.
And for her role as founder of #TakeEmDown901 (now more aptly named #TookEmDown901), Sawyer was named one of 18 Tennesseans to watch in 2018 by the USA Today Tennessee Network.
Under Sawyer’s leadership, the group held community meetings in June and rallies throughout the summer, including one in August at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Health Science Park. More than 200 people participated; seven were arrested. Charges against all were eventually dropped.
The group also delivered to City Hall more than 3,000 signatures supporting monument removal.
“For Strickland to not name #TakeEmDown901 at all, it definitely felt like another slap in the face,” Sawyer said. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without this grassroots movement.”
Theryn Bond, a #TakeEmDown901 organizer, spoke of a sense of being jilted by the city shortly after the City Council vote that set removal events in motion. Of Strickland’s perceived indifference toward the group, Bond noted a persistent lack of communication often left them wondering about whom, who and what their elected officials actually cared.
“It seems [Strickland] extended a hand to several other people or entities or groups instead of reaching out to Tami or anyone from #TakeEmDown901,” Bond said.
For example, throughout 2017, Strickland opted for mediation with Sons of Confederate Veterans, known to harbor romantic notions about the Confederacy and the Civil War, and descendants of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a virulent racist who made his fortune by enslaving black people. Additionally, a group of more than 170 clergy members rallied with Strickland to call upon the Tennessee Historical Commission to stop impeding in the removal process.
At no point did Strickland contact the citizen-driven group that consistently kept the fight in front of cameras, top of mind in the public imagination.
“He seems to not want to go that route, which is very upsetting from someone who says they want the best for this city and the best for the people of that community,” Bond said.
The mayor’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, the City of Memphis has chosen to honor some protesters — of King’s era. In December, the city broke ground on the “I AM A Man” plaza, a public space to honor 1,300 sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968 after two co-workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. About a dozen surviving strikers, men in their 70s and 80s, attended the ceremony.
Also in 2017, the Strickland administration launched a public relations campaign that borrows the color palette and typography from “I AM A MAN” protest signs carried in ’68 by striking sanitation workers. Signs blaring “I AM MEMPHIS,” with a drawing of strikers wearing “I AM A MAN” signs in the background, now adorn 12 city sanitation trucks.
The irony and appropriation wasn’t lost on Memphis’ modern-day social justice warriors. After all, they say, this is the same city attempting to curb constitutionally protected free assembly by changing guidelines to do so.
During a November press conference to protest proposed assembly changes, Catherine Lewis of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens lit into the campaign.
“How dare they take the one thing that we can truly call our own, a citizen-led push for equality and turn it into marketing?” Lewis said.
Even a casual reading of civil rights history makes this clear: Were King alive, he would not align himself with the establishment in a city where more than half of black children live below the poverty line. He would align himself with activists.
Dr. King explained the rationale for the marches and protests in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 to white clergymen angered by his participation in protests there.
“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation,” King wrote. “Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
King continued: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
From the beginning of the #TakeEmDown901 movement, Strickland insisted the path to removing the Confederate monuments must be one that lawfully cleared the barrier set in place by the Tennessee Historical Commission, which governs such monuments. The state law prohibiting removal of Confederate symbols is a recent one, passed in 2016, thwarting renewed efforts to topple the statues in Memphis, mirroring similar campaigns across the South.
Dec. 20’s city council vote cleared that hurdle by selling Health Science and Fourth Bluff parks to Memphis Greenspace Inc., allowing the nonprofit to hire crews to dismantle the monuments and haul them out of the public eye.
Tami Sawyer was there: She stood with the crowd watching the deconstruction of monuments celebrating white supremacy, until Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton escorted her under yellow police tape up to the cleared site where Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bronzed statue once stood.
It was a poignant recognition of months of work by Sawyer and #TakeEmDown901. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen and several other county and state elected officials also reached out to Sawyer that night, but no city officials did.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Sawyer said. “We want the same things. It doesn’t have to be the city vs the activists.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Mayor Jim Strickland traveled by plane to a state historical commission meeting in East Tennessee last year. His spokeswoman said the mayor traveled by car.
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