At the last Moral Mondays in Memphis event, about 300 people of all faiths joined hands in the sanctuary of Temple Israel, swayed in unison and sang the song Congressman John Lewis said sustained him throughout the ’60s civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

When the Rev. Traci Blackmon took the stage, she quickly and firmly admonished those who commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of “singing hand in hand as if we live that way.”

“Let’s not let another 50 years ago by where we say ‘I have a dream’ because we refuse to wake up,” said Blackmon, noting Memphis’ most recent poverty report, which shows the poverty rate for African-American children is more than four times greater than that of white children.

Now pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, Blackmon came to prominence after quelling community tensions stemming from 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in nearby Ferguson. The national backlash that ensued is largely credited with sparking the Black Lives Matter movement. Blackmon was joined by the Rev. Gerald Durley, senior pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta; Rabbi Katie Bauman, associate rabbi of Temple Israel; and the Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman, a professor at Yale Divinity School.

Throughout the evening, speakers focused on strategies to turn prayer and words into action on King’s agenda, keenly focused on economic justice at the time of his death in Memphis April 4, 1968. Blackmon said King’s legacy feels sanitized in the face of his radical notions of fairness and inclusion.

Mrs. and Mrs. Allen: ‘Where are the good jobs?’

Audience members Lula and Louis Allen agreed with Blackmon. The longtime Memphians, who marched with King and were in Memphis the day he was murdered, came to hear solutions for bringing multiracial people of faith together to meaningfully address the city’s entrenched problems, such as poverty, policing and racial division.

Audience members at Temple Israel hold hands while singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Although King’s death was a shock, and the city was in chaos after, Lula said the movement was able to build on his legacy. Now, the main issue is economic inequality.

“We have civil rights, but all races need economic equality,” Lula said “They talk about jobs, but where are they? They only have low-paying ones.”

Louis called the job market “another form of racism.” People who already have money can afford training or education to get jobs, especially those with enough pay and benefits. If a person has little to no money, he suggested, they’re just out of luck.

“They use rules and regulations so that you cannot get a foundation to work. All you have is people way at the top and all of us at the bottom. Trickle down doesn’t work,” Louis said.

While preparing for her keynote, Blackmon told the audience she repeatedly played King’s “Mountaintop” speech, his last one, given at Mason Temple Church of God In Christ on April 3, 1968. She noted folks revel in feeling good about King’s inspirational words, which is “the revisionist history of Dr. King.”

Blackmon continued: “We are content to celebrate oration but absent ourselves from the work. And the work of economic justice includes “resources — not as charity but as investment — and resources for all the free labor,” that built the United States.

Rabbi Micah Greenstein talks about the power of community at Moral Mondays in Memphis at Temple Israel.

Blackmon, who also heads up the social justice ministry for the United Church of Christ, knows a thing or two about Memphis, including the fight for a living wage and meeting with ’68 city sanitation workers. She came to Memphis Feb. 12 and marched with Fight for $15 organizers, too.

“We cannot be placated by more minimum wage jobs, while corporations are receiving millions in tax breaks,” Blackmon said.

Of the 29 living sanitation workers, she said: The $50,000 grants given to them by the City of Memphis is “admirable… but not nearly enough.”

Noting two sanitation workers still on the job 50 years later, Blackmon amplified them: “They still work there to this day. Think on that.”

‘An absence of communal repair’

Memphis has a lot of work to do, Blackmon said firmly: “Repentance rings hollow in the absence of communal repair.”

She noted the State of Tennessee spends much more to incarcerate people but very little to educate them, a fact supported by a recent U.S. Department of Education report: State spending on corrections grew by 288 percent over 30 years compared with a 117 percent increase in spending for public education.

An audience member in rapt attention as the Rev. Traci Blackmon brings the message.

“Continuing to talk is a luxury of privilege,” Blackmon said by way of convicting audience members who had the time to talk, sing and pray about 50-year-old problems. “Continuing to meet is a luxury of privilege.”

In the discussion that followed, the Rev. Turman co-signed Blackmon on King’s radical message: She exhorted the audience to remember his “radicality” in a “nation that suffers from acute amnesia.”

“We continue his legacy of fighting structural inequality — such as racial and economic inequality — the intersections of which brought him to this city and the final frontier of his life, by building on it, Turman said.

She challenged the crowd, saying if they believe “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” people should be able to connect this fight to the liberation of gender and sexual minorities.

Turman admitted King “got the gender question wrong” despite being propelled in his work by black women. The most economically vulnerable, he said, are black women and their children.

As a call to action, Blackmon said, “Marches must be accompanied by economic pressure. We must boycott. Liberation does not begin with acquiescence to the oppressor.”

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.