As the nation prepares to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years after his assassination in Memphis, that city’s chief executive has adopted the imagery and symbolism of the black-led labor strike against city government. That strike drew King to town, and to his final moments.
Last year, the office of Mayor Jim Strickland — the city’s first white mayor in decades — launched a marketing campaign that transforms the iconic “I Am a Man” slogan used by striking sanitation employees into a civic brand, stamped with the city seal: “I Am Memphis.”
The campaign includes a website, billboards, banners hung across downtown, “I Am Memphis” placards affixed to garbage trucks, even a “reverse march” Saturday to retrace the procession that King led weeks before his death.
How does the mayor’s use of the past — especially the memory of King — square with his conduct in the present?
The evidence is clear: In his first two years in office, Strickland has taken steps that would have put him directly at odds with King.
Memphis and the National Political Context
My scholarship as a professor of political rhetoric focuses mainly on making sense of the language that defines our national scene. National and local contexts overlap, however, and Memphis is a prime example.
The sanitation workers’ dispute was part of a larger scene. Its basic contours — poor people of color resisting the forces of white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and state-sanctioned violence — followed the outline of protests gripping the country throughout the 1960s.
From a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell in 1963, King alluded to such protests, to how unpopular they were and to the structures in American society they sought to overcome.
King demanded that we see these structures for what they were — instruments of dehumanization supported by custom and law. He asked his detractors to grasp that he and his supporters were not actually creating tension, but bringing “to the surface the tension that is already alive.”
The distinction is key.
By the “tension that is already alive,” King meant the racial and economic inequalities that suffocated thousands of Americans.
But he was also referring to the tension created by civic leaders who criticized protesters’ methods — and who used police to enforce their power — while keeping in place the policies that created the very conditions that led them to take to the streets in the first place.
In 2018, activists nationwide face similar tensions as they fight the reactionary forces that targeted President Barack Obama for eight years and eventually put President Donald Trump into the White House.
And in Memphis, activists find themselves facing a mayor eerily in sync with those same forces.
The racial rhetoric of law and order
To recognize this truth, look at the starring role that crime played in the rhetoric that carried Strickland into office.
Strickland chose to open his campaign headquarters in July 2015 at the same mall where, months before, several black youths were arrested. The arrests followed a gathering outside a Kroger that ended in an assault and that some asserted was a “hate crime” against whites.
Saying the incident had shaken him, Strickland reminded supporters at the headquarters’ grand opening that his own home was nearby: “That was a real deciding point for me that maybe I ought to seriously look at the mayor’s race. That’s a wake-up call to this city. We have to clean this city up.”
Making crime the focal point of his case to unseat the incumbent, Strickland alleged Mayor A C Wharton had “secretly” cut the police budget and blamed him personally for a spike in violent crime.
As Kyle Veazey, then a Commercial Appeal reporter covering the campaign (now the mayor’s deputy director of communications) put it after Strickland was elected: “It was all crime, all the time.”
The would-be-mayor’s chief strategist Steve Reid’s summarized the approach: “It’s crime, stupid.”
Strickland thus joined a long national history of “law and order” candidates for public office, and did so in a fashion with distinct racial overtones for the Southern city he sought to govern.
Since their inception in the form of armed slave patrols, police forces in the South have served to enforce the tenets of white supremacy, and in particular to address what critical race scholars have termed “moral panics” centered on black deviance and criminality.
Scorn for protest as means to social change
In July 2016, more than 1,000 demonstrators, echoing a national outcry over police violence against African Americans, occupied a bridge on Interstate 40 that crosses the Mississippi River, connecting Memphis to Arkansas.
Although he dismissed the activists as politically ineffectual — “the protest had no effect on what we are doing,” he said a year later — the action itself marked a turning point.
In the months after the bridge protest, the scope of Strickland’s anti-crime rhetoric grew. It would come to include activists who, stirred by the same injustices that motivated King, would launch acts of civil disobedience unseen in the city since the sanitation workers’ strike.
In August 2016, protesters organized an action outside the Graceland mansion to call attention to the lack of jobs in the predominantly black neighborhood where Elvis Presley once lived, and where the state and city had just offered a massive tax incentive for site renovations.
Then in December 2016, a small group staged a “die-in” on the mayor’s lawn. While organizers framed the action as demand to be heard, Strickland called the activists “trespassers” intending to “intimidate my family, my wife and my young kids.”
As if to punctuate his scorn for protest as a method of social change, he said flatly: “It’s not going to get them anywhere. We don’t need trespassing and breaking the law to try and make a point.”
Strickland’s disdain, however, went beyond mere words. His response to protest seemed to follow the lead of Henry Loeb, the mayor of Memphis in 1968, who authorized police to surveil the sanitation workers and their allies.
In February 2017, activists discovered that after the die-in, Strickland added some activists’ names to a secret list (maintained by police prior to his election and still of unknown provenance) of local citizens barred from City Hall without a police escort.
After news of the list broke, another startling revelation followed days later.
Matt Winter, a graduate student at American University, stumbled upon evidence that the city coordinated with state law enforcement in the surveillance of local activists throughout 2016 — including minute-by-minute updates of a vigil held for Stewart at the site of his death.
Like the list, the activities Winter discovered appeared to be in clear violation of a federal consent decree, signed by Memphis in 1978, which prohibited the city from monitoring constitutionally protected political activities.
Then in August 2017, at a black-led gathering calling on Strickland to remove an equestrian statue of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park, police arrested seven activists on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to “desecration of a venerated object” for attempting to cover the statue with a tarp. All charges were subsequently dismissed.
Even with charges dropped, the overall message from the list, the Winter discovery, and the arrests at the statue protest echoed 1968: Memphis city government would construe vocal resistance, especially black resistance, as a dangerous threat to public order.
The Sessions Connection
Strickland’s use of police to take on activists coincided with a flurry of “anti-crime” initiatives.
In February 2017, just days after the story of the list broke, the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission announced a grant to the city (funded by undisclosed donors solicited directly by the mayor) of $6.1 million for recruiting and retaining police.
Then in July 2017, Strickland unveiled a $300,000 advertising campaign called “Fed Up” — essentially a “Just Say No” promotion directed at potential perpetrators that spent public money to reinforce the same message Strickland used to win his 2015 race.
Strickland moved throughout 2017 not only to expand his anti-crime platform, but also to grow local forces and tighten their ties with the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He is the same man who Coretta Scott King said in 1986 would “irreparably damage the work of my husband” if appointed as a federal judge.
Such steps seem particularly out of place here. In Shelby County, where Memphis is located, Hillary Rodham Clinton bested Trump by nearly 28 points in the 2016 election.
And yet in May 2017, Strickland met privately with Sessions in search of federal support for his anti-crime platform. Weeks later, the Department of Justice added Memphis to its “National Public Safety Partnership” program, which includes direct federal training for local police.
During Sessions’ visit, Strickland was also among the elected officials present when the county’s juvenile court Judge Dan Michael asked that the court be released from federal oversight.
The mayor did not object when Judge Michael, who wears a cowboy hat and bolo tie, made his request, even though the Department of Justice found in 2012 that the court treats black children more harshly than white children. The “disproportionate minority contact,” as the Department of Justice labels this systemic discrimination, has not decreased despite years of federal intervention.
Strickland’s courting of Trump’s Justice Department (and their moves to reciprocate) proves this: He has anchored his rhetoric and politics in a national context that renders violent crime and white anxieties over black resistance inseparable.
Take, for example, the Kroger incident Strickland cited as the impetus for his campaign. It occurred just weeks after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, which followed the police killing of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teen. And the unrest coincided with the rise of Black Lives Matter, which the FBI, in a leaked report, essentially recast as a “Black Identity Extremist” movement that threatened the nation.
Likewise, Trump’s promise to bring order to a nation beset by “crimes and gangs and drugs” found its counterpart in Strickland’s own campaign rhetoric.
In retrospect, Strickland’s vow to “clean up” the city reads as a milder preface to Trump’s inaugural battle cry — “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
“Times of Challenge and Controversy”
In the spotlight of the King commemoration, and with the nation watching, Strickland’s message to Memphians now takes a different tack.
In place of panicked warnings about violent crime, calls for more police, and lectures on the ineffectiveness and criminality of civil protest, the mayor uses the “I AM Memphis” website to promote “sponsorship opportunities that will support projects and activities surrounding the commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. King.”
What does it mean to be a leader who commemorates the “life and legacy” of King, while so clearly taking stands that King would have opposed?
An answer appears in King’s 1963 book of sermons and speeches, “Strength to Love.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” he wrote.
Memphis’ problems are considerable — anemic population growth, a black child poverty rate of 52 percent, its status as the poorest large metro in the nation — and cannot be solved by the mayor alone or overnight.
But with all the ways to interpret and approach these challenges, the mayor has embraced language and tactics that reflect some of the worst tendencies of our national political culture.
It is easy to honor King with banners and billboards. It is convenient to do so in a majority-black city.
Memphis faces times of “challenge and controversy” today, just as it did in 1968. The city deserves a mayor up to the task.
Antonio de Velasco is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis where he teaches and conducts research on political rhetoric.
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