In a year marked by unrelenting protests for social justice causes — from police violence to Confederate monuments — Memphis activists have been remarkably quiet in the run-up to events commemorating the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago this week.
Instead, groups like the Memphis Bus Riders Union and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center encourage members to attend events linked to workers’ rights and fair pay. Specifically, they’re pointing folks to events hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the same union that organized the 1968 sanitation workers strike. It was this strike, launched Feb. 12, 1968, which brought King to Memphis, keen to amplify his radical economic agenda, including everyone’s right to a living wage.
The one exception is a Coalition for Concerned Citizens “rolling block party,” a well-coordinated series of demonstrations planned at various points throughout Memphis. C3 aims to spotlight power players, businesses and institutions their members believe are perpetrators of systemic poverty in the poorest metro in the nation. Fifty years after King took a bullet on behalf of workers seeking decent pay, C3 members are appalled poverty is so entrenched in a majority-black city (63 percent), where the black poverty rate is two and a half times higher than that of whites.
“It’s not about the poverty itself, it’s about the people that are still creating poverty today,” C3 organizer Al Lewis said in a Saturday afternoon planning meeting.
While Fight for $15, largely recognized for its staged shutdowns of local McDonald’s locations, has no events planned, local activist Hunter Demster said an unspecified number of members would be bused in from across the country to participate in an April 4 AFSCME Local 1733 rally for justice and march to Mason Temple.
Still, the silence around planned actions may barely register among large crowds as the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of the slain civil rights leader, is expected to attend, according to multiple media reports. On Sunday morning, the Rev. Jesse Jackson kicked off the commemorative week with a sermon at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Midtown. And celebrities like Common and Angela Rye, are also rumored to be attending. In all, the Memphis Police Department expects more than 100,000 visitors on and around the April 4 anniversary.
Meanwhile, some activists have expressed concern over the timing of a recent police department purchase of 1,500 crowd-control chemical projectiles, such as smoke grenades and tactical grenades. A department spokesperson said $30,000 worth of chemicals had nothing to do with the King commemoration but would, instead, be used in regular training exercises.
Fox13 Memphis investigative reporter Jim Spiewack checked city archives as far back as 2011 and was unable to find evidence of similar purchases by the department.
Memphis Police Association, the union representing city police, is expected to leverage heightened awareness about MLK50 commemorative events to call attention to their own push for a raise: Police officers’ base salaries start at $40,194 and are eligible for renegotiation in 2019.
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.