If early civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks could successfully test the veracity of the Brown v Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision by refusing to move to the back of the bus, we should be able to do the same for poverty, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said.
Memphis is majority black (64 percent) with 34 percent of residents earning less than $10 an hour, Jackson said Wednesday night at the National Civil Rights Museum’s capstone at the Crosstown Concourse, commemorating 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Jackson even asked the servers how much they earned: $9 a hour, they said.
“Why can’t Memphis be a test case around poverty?” said Jackson, who was a young aide to King and on the balcony outside of the Lorraine Motel’s Room 306 when he was shot. “We have to start somewhere.”
Tickets to the museum’s “Evening of Storytelling” were $100, or nearly 14 hours of labor for a worker making minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. First-floor seats were reserved for sponsors.
“The well-off and the secure,” King wrote, “have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst.”
Practical strategies mixed with spirit of resistance punctuated a series of moderated talks, including insights from civil rights icons such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. James Lawson to leaders of newer social justice movements, including Tami Sawyer of #TakeEmDown901, Bree Newsome, who removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, Quentin James, co-founder of community engagement firm Vestige Strategies, LLC, and Tamika Mallory, a leader of the National Women’s March.
Wednesday night was a stark contrast to three days in which King’s radical legacy was nearly drowned in respectability politics. This night King’s contemporaries poured out ideas, igniting a creative spark that meshed well with newer leaders. They also clearly delineated a meaningful and logical throughline from 1968 to today.
“We knew that Jim Crow was tough,” said Diane Nash, a lead civil rights movement strategist and leader of the Nashville sit-ins of 1960. “We were going to do whatever was necessary.”
Lawson was fired up, telling the audience the U.S. economy is rotten from top to bottom, citing food, medical and housing insecurity. Leaning in and speaking loudly in the cavernous hall, surrounded by about 1,200 onlookers who came to meet history makers and be a part of it, he blasted:
“Our present economic system is a plantation capitalist system … aimed at the gathering of wealth by the plantations,” said Lawson, who point-blank said the American economy treats workers like “slaves who don’t need living wages.”
While Lawson was clearly angered by the state of modern politics, he stuck true to his values of nonviolent resistance.
Calling today’s brand of activism, “cultural activism,” he said just movements must be led by love. He said the type of resistance practiced by Rosa Parks “was a movement that recognized in the first instance that each one of us had the power of the very gift of life, and we had to use the gift of life … to exploit it on the noble side of humanity to be alive as we could become.
“If you want social change, you have to be and do the thing that produces social change. If you want justice, you must become just people,” Lawson said.
Wednesday night’s session contrasted with the scene outside the museum that day, which was cordoned off with riot fencing, dumpsters blocking the ends of streets and police standing guard at every turn.
The feeling in the city, remarked an Uber driver shuttling visitors around after Tuesday’s Mason Temple event, was “like Elvis Week.”
But the Rev. William Barber, who with the Rev. Liz Theoharis founded the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, brought back the words of Dr. King: “Nothing would be more tragic for us than to turn back now.”
Mallory said the country is in an “incredible moment” because of the idea of intersectionality a concept coined by Kimberle Crenshaw—a noted critical race theorist—incorporates the many identities people hold. The truth is sexism, xenophobia, Islamism and racism “happen to the same communities at the same time.” And if that’s the case, “why would we not have a movement that allows those people to come to the table?”
Mallory said getting millions of people to march worldwide is one thing: “It gets messy when you start going the real work after the march is over. Intersectionality doesn’t mean we only fight when you’re comfortable.”
MLK50 journalists Peggy Burch, Kirstin Cheers, Deborah Douglas, Leanne Kleinmann, Kevin McKenzie, Peggy McKenzie, J. Dylan Sandifer and Wendi C. Thomas contributed to this story.
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. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.