The schism between Mayor Jim Strickland’s view of Memphis’ progress on policing, education and politics and Saturday’s #IAmMemphis keynoter, Angela Rye, suggest this city has a great deal of “woke” to do.

In addition to big-city problems that include creating more jobs paying a livable wage, addressing entrenched public transportation issues and agreeing to a policing approach that prioritizes protection over occupation, Strickland and activist residents don’t see eye to eye.

The mayor’s reaction to public criticism of his approach and policies by Rye, invited by the City of Memphis to headline Saturday’s ’68 commemorative event is a case in point: Other savvy big-city mayors balancing a tense-filled black-white political rubric may have accepted Rye’s challenge to do better to address problems backed up by reams of research and lived experience.

Smarting from being criticized from just a few feet away on The Orpheum Theatre stage, Strickland put his typical Southern genteel composure aside to go on the defense, first by reportedly claiming he didn’t know who Rye was. It’s worth noting Rye, a CNN political analyst, has also served as executive director and general counsel to the Congressional Black Caucus.

“It’s easy to criticize the challenges we’ve faced for decades. It’s harder to actually do something.”

Memphis Mayor jim strickland

In a statement released Monday, Strickland doubled down on airing out his objections:

“You may have seen this weekend where, at an event we held to honor the courageous Memphis sanitation workers of 1968, a cable news pundit in part attacked Memphis and all of us who are working every single day for a better Memphis. … But as your mayor, as someone who has the honor to see this work up close and personal every single day, I feel compelled to defend our city — particularly against the items the speaker got wrong.”

Political analyst and attorney Angela Rye took the City of Memphis and its administration to task during her keynote address at the “I Am A Man” commemoration. Here, she speaks at Clayborn Temple during the Working People’s Day of Action.

What, exactly, did Rye say to engender this response? As MLK50 previously reported, she pointed out the city’s lack of progress on alleviating child poverty and questioned the city’s investment in policing over education. Rye said:

“My spirit is troubled because this is the place where Dr. King was assassinated,” Rye said. “Fifty years after his assassination, and I say to Memphis, be true to what you said on paper…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.”

“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.”  

Angela Rye, political analyst and attorney

Strickland’s Monday news update sought to reduce Rye’s stature and credibility by calling her a “cable news pundit,” clueless about the challenges he and other “deeply engaged” leaders have tackled during his term. He said Rye was wrong for bashing Memphis.

“Fact is, it’s easy to criticize the challenges we’ve faced for decades. It’s harder to actually do something,” Strickland said.

Comments in support of Rye’s statements were reportedly deleted from Strickland’s Facebook page. Hunter Demster, a community activist, provided screenshots to MLK50 from the now-deleted posts.

Screenshot by Hunter Demster.

The mayor goes on defense

Strickland went on record with a fact-check of Rye’s assertions:

Strickland said: He stood with Memphians who wanted tougher punishments for those committing violent crimes. The City of Memphis launched the Fed Up gun control campaign in 2017 that budgeted $300,000 on gun violence prevention advertising, and urged state and federal prosecutors to seek maximum sentences for gun charges stemming from homicides, domestic abuse and drug use.

Here’s the rest: In Memphis and beyond, black citizens are concerned about both police protection and policies that don’t contribute to the country’s mass incarceration rate.

Strickland said: He discredited Rye’s statement that the city spends more on police than education.

Here’s the rest: According to the 2017–2018 FY budget summary from Shelby County Schools, the City of Memphis contributed $4.86 million, a fraction of the $1.3 billion the mayor cited. Conversely, city officials budgeted $258 million for police this year.

Strickland said: Memphis police do not use “stop and frisk.”

Here’s the rest: Indeed, stop-and-frisk is not official policy. But in 2016, the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission, a private group that has significant influence on public policy, hired Ray Kelly, the former New York police commissioner who oversaw NYPD’s use of the controversial tactic. For those seeking more expansive forms of policing like restorative justice and policies that don’t add to the already disproportionate maximum sentences on people of color, this was concerning.

Strickland said: Memphis has made progress by offering sanitation workers a living wage, benefits and retirement.

Here’s the rest: According to the City of Memphis Human Resources job description, a solid waste crewperson starts at $26,692.12 annually or $12.83 an hour, below the living wage calculation for Memphians with a family to support. For example, a living wage for two adults (one working) with one child would be $20.36, and a family with one working adult with one child would be $21.96.

Strickland said: In an interview with Montee Lopez writing for The New Tri-State Defender, Strickland said he believes the work he and his team have committed to doing would make Dr. King proud.

Here’s the rest: But would it? Here’s what King said in his final speech: “We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying … we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.”

In addition to that: Rye, who announced Saturday she would donate her honorarium from the City of Memphis to The Official Black Lives Matter of Memphis Chapter bail fund and C-3 Land Cooperative, told MLK50: “The mayor has made a number of statements — many of them inaccurate, but when will he answer whether he will match my donations?”

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.