Before hundreds filled the Orpheum Theatre Saturday morning for the city’s #IAmMemphis event, before Mayor Jim Strickland praised the sacrifice of the 1968 sanitation strikers, before the guest speaker — political commentator Angela Rye — took the stage and delivered a fiery rebuke of Strickland and the city, there was a meeting.
At a breakfast meeting with progressive organizers, Rye took notes as they ran through a litany of concerns that boil down to this: As the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination approaches, Memphis hasn’t made as much progress toward King’s dream as it wants the world to believe.
Rye, best known for her insightful and incisive commentary on CNN, nodded. The city offered her so much to speak she told the organizers that she’d wondered what was wrong.
What’s wrong, the Memphians told her, is the city’s endemic poverty, harassment of protesters and divestment in public education. Plus, said Shahidah Jones of the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter, the city’s policing tactics are nothing more than “regurgitated stop and frisk.”
What came next was textbook solidarity. Rye, a political dynamo, joined forces with Memphis activists who feel slighted by Strickland — the city’s first white mayor in decades.
From her sizable speaking fee, Rye promised to donate $5,000 to the BLM chapter’s bail fund and another $5,000 to the black-led C-3 Land Cooperative, a nonprofit community land trust that serves the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Rye went straight from the meeting to the Orpheum Theatre, where she took the stage with Strickland sitting just feet away. In just a matter of minutes, she’d crafted the organizer’s frustrations into a speech and issued a biting critique of the city and a challenge to its residents.
“Your campaign is called ‘I Am Memphis,’ but is this the Memphis that Dr. King would have seen in the promised land when the right to protest is met with the black listing, literally, of activists?” Rye asked.
“ Are you proud of this Memphis — this Memphis that sounds entirely too familiar to the Memphis that rejected Dr. King in 1968?”
The crowd, made up largely of people from Fullview Baptist Church, youth with the Memphis Ambassadors program and members of historically black Greek-letter organizations, was initially quiet, but Rye was undeterred.
“You wanted to have a reverse march today and you couldn’t and you couldn’t because we can’t substantially honor progress that doesn’t exist,” she said. “The black child poverty rate is the highest in the nation, one of the highest rates of disconnected youth in the nation.
“The city of Memphis spends more on policing than on education. There’s unlawful surveillance of activists… eerily familiar to what Dr. King went through with J. Edgar Hoover.”
Wearing a black beret, Rye, named for activist Angela Davis, repeated what organizers such as the ones she called by name — Tami Sawyer, Keedran Franklin, Pastor Earle Fisher, Pastor Andre Johnson and Jones — have been saying to the mayor, who continues to be dismissive of their work.
“Revisionist history is what makes us love Dr. King,” Rye said, getting emotional. “It is the pulling of the quotes that are the easiest to digest, it’s not the hard truth of his worth. And I’m crying in frustration because we can do better as a people, we must do better as a people.”
After her speech, in her dressing room behind stage, Rye and her team were told to wait for the mayor. He never showed up, but the city’s chief communications officer, Ursula Madden, did, and shook hands with Rye.
In an interview with The Commercial Appeal’s Jennifer Pignolet, Strickland claimed ignorance of Rye’s influence.
“I didn’t know who she was,” Strickland was quoted as saying, “But that’s fine. We all should challenge each other. And she was wrong in many of her facts, she’s not from Memphis, she doesn’t know what’s going on here, but that’s fine.”
“We need to do better in the city of Memphis,” Strickland continued. “Not only city government but the people out there. And we need fewer Facebook warriors who point out problems.”
The story did not elaborate on what factual errors Strickland found in Rye’s remarks. It was not clear if Strickland was aware, as MLK50 reported on Twitter, that Rye met Saturday morning with most of the activists whose names she called out during her speech. (Tami Sawyer, the architect of the #TakeEmDown901 movement that led to the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments in December, was out of town but talked to Rye earlier in the week.)
Before Strickland’s comments were reported, she told MLK50 this: “I said what was on my heart to share. I had the great privilege of sitting with activists and advocates this morning. I had the great privilege of speaking to some folks before I got to Memphis to really get a sense of what’s going on on the ground,” she said.
“As I go into other communities, I think it’s so important to be connected to what’s actually happening so that you can be a voice and an advocate and a champion for what’s right…. It’s just incumbent upon us as we commemorate the 50th anniversary — not of just the sanitation workers’ strike but also Dr. King’s death — that we make progress and I’m committing my life to making progress.
“I’m committing my life to challenging myself, even when it’s hot and uncomfortable, and I think it’s my responsibility to do the same thing everywhere. I think real love means pushing people towards change. Real love sometimes feels like chastening, it doesn’t always feel comfortable.”
The pre-speech meeting where @angela_rye talked to several activists. Here’s where she committed to give $5K to two local orgs. C3 Land Cooperative and Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter. #IAmAMan #IAmMemphis #MLK50NCRM #MLK50 pic.twitter.com/HS2q47Jmy1
— MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (@MLK50Memphis) February 24, 2018
.@angela_rye called out @MayorMemphis for meeting with Jeff Sessions, the city for spending more on policing, noted the black child poverty rate, which is higher in Memphis than anywhere else in the nation. #IAmAMan #IAmMemphis #wheredowegofromhere #MLK50NCRM #MLK50 pic.twitter.com/ClqNzliJbU
— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) February 24, 2018
If @angela_rye told #Memphis the #Truth… and it hurt our feelings… what should we #change… the #TRUTH… or our feelings?
@tamisawyer@wendi_c_thomas@aejohnsonphd@kmt188#StayWoke #MLK50 #IAmMemphis #IAmAMan #PickASide
— Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D. (@Pastor_Earle) February 24, 2018
“I don’t even know who she is…” @MayorMemphis on @angela_rye. But you invited her to your city and your event. The mayor continues his habit of attempting to silence and erase black voices and esp black women voices. We won’t be silenced though Mayor.
— Tami Sawyer!
(@tamisawyer) February 24, 2018
Thank you for having me. I hope the city will join me in granting $5k to the C3 Land Cooperative and $5k to the OFFICIAL Black Lives Matter campaign “Memphis Community Bail Fund”. #MLK50 #weRISE https://t.co/Kj5UuIwpnm
— A N G E L A | R Y E (@angela_rye) February 24, 2018
This story 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.