It is finished. Memphis’ yearlong tug-of-war — between a sanitized recounting of our past and an authentic accounting of our present — has ended.
In one corner were activists and union organizers, prophetic preachers and disrupters. In the other corner were representatives of the status quo, corporations, wealthy donors and some image-conscious elected officials.
Who won? That depends on what this MLK50 moment was supposed to do.
Was it to resurrect King’s commitment to civil disobedience? Or to revive his withering critique of capitalism, which he said “continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white”? Or to remind the nation of King’s staunch support of organized labor and unions?
Or was MLK50 supposed to show the world a New South, one free from the civic shame of being the city where King was killed? A city where King’s dream of economic justice had been fulfilled?
King had one reason to be in Memphis: To support striking black sanitation workers frustrated by low wages and unsafe working conditions.
“A living wage should be the right of all working Americans,” King said in 1966.
Yet Walmart, the country’s largest private employer and most notorious poverty wage employer, sponsored the National Civil Rights Museum’s two-day symposium that professed to address the question posed by King’s last book — Where do we go from here?
“Philanthropy is commendable,” King said, “but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic justice which make philanthropy necessary.”
And yet before Day 2 of the symposium began, a Walmart executive took the stage proudly announced $4 million worth of grants to nonprofits across the country, including $500,000 to the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis.
Finding it hard to believe that @Walmart would sponsor a #MLK50 event given their inability to pay family sustaining wages and their tendency to fight against worker rights. @Walmart could do so much more to support MLK’s vision for #economic #justice! @wendi_c_thomas
— Shawn Escoffery (@SEscoffery) April 3, 2018
The University of Memphis, which hosted both days of the symposium, also ignored the survey sent to the area’s 25 largest employers, which combined have more than 160,000 workers.
Absent from discussions about economic inequality were people who were currently experiencing poverty; most panelists had multiple degrees and stable incomes from the prestigious institutions where they work. (Full disclosure: I was a panelist at the April 3 symposium.)
This dissonance went unremarked by the museum’s executive director, Terri Freeman, who was in an unenviable position.
Continuing King’s anti-poverty crusade in the poorest large metropolitan area in the nation, while also relying on corporate dollars to keep the museum’s lights on–not even the steadiest tight rope walker could master that.
In the 1950s and ’60s, King himself moved between between raw confrontations in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, and sedate ceremonies such as the one in Stockholm, Sweden, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Perhaps it was fitting that the 2018 events played out on a conflicting landscape as well.
Some, such as the symposium organized by the museum and the university, were scholarly. The former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered the keynote address April 2, and the historian Taylor Branch spoke April 3.
Flashes of King’s radical spirit surfaced, as panelists stressed grim reality and considered provocative proposals to bring economic equality to black Americans.
“The median income for African-Americans has stayed at 50 percent of whites since 1960. That is not progress,” said Elena Delavega, assistant professor of social work at the University of Memphis. She wrote “The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK,” commissioned by the museum. The percentage of black children who live in poverty is higher today than it was in 1980, the report found.
“You can’t be invested in the status quo and say you want to fix poverty,” said Charles McKinney, professor of Africana studies and history at Rhodes College. “You can’t have it both ways.”
In 1963, King told the throngs gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
Panelist Randall Robinson, a scholar and author who supports reparations to black people for decades of slavery and disenfranchisement, echoed King’s faith in the nation’s promises.
“It’s like starting a race and being held back, then being shot in the leg with a pistol and told to run,” he said. “We can’t catch up. We will never catch up until this country comes to terms with itself and its idea of a democratic ideal.”
Noted economist and author Julianne Malveaux: “Dr. King talked about economic structures constantly. His legacy is really about distribution: Who gets what and where and why. Absent reparations, we’ll never close the wage gap.”
“But these young people who are marching now make me optimistic for the future.”
The April 3 march from AFSCME headquarters to Mason Temple a half century after King’s death filled Downtown Memphis streets with people he inspired. They listened to often-fiery speeches by clergy, politicians and entertainers, from the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, to performers Common and Sheila E.
“Fifty years ago those brave 1,300 sanitation workers, the faith-based community, our community partners, walked together hand-in-hand, singing together, praying together, walking and demanding justice and dignity for those sanitation workers,” AFSCME president Lee Saunders told the marchers.
Other events called to mind King’s Baptist preaching heritage: That evening at Mason Temple, a portion of King’s haunting final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” filled the sprawling sanctuary.
It was in that pulpit King said, with ominous prescience, on the night before his assassination: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Standing where their father did, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King and the Rev. Martin Luther King III acknowledged the vital spirit of contemporary activism in movements from the new Poor People’s Campaign, to Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
“We have not, in 50 years, dealt with, as Dad challenged us … the last vestiges of racism,” said Bernice King, who openly acknowledged she was still grieving for a father who had yet to be buried.
She recalled the draft of King’s last sermon, called “America may go to hell.”
With her own brand of prescience, she said: “Fifty years later, I’m here to declare and decree not only must America be born again, but it’s time for America to repent.”
As officially sanctioned activities were underway April 3, a group of activists gathered near the Shelby County jail that afternoon to perform some “street theater.” Theirs was an artistic interpretation of the civil disobedience that landed King behind bars more than once.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” wrote King from a Birmingham jail in 1963. “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
Outside the jail, several dressed up as prisoners, and one man acted out the role of an Immigration and Customs official as they pretended to detain immigrants.
They, themselves, were detained by Memphis police, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. So was longtime local Latino journalist, Manuel Duran, who was covering the demonstration.
Duran, who is undocumented, was the only one of the nine arrested who wasn’t released the next day. He now sits in a Louisiana detention center; at the time of publication, a Facebook fundraiser had collected more than $15,000 in donations for his bond.
Among those arrested April 3, shortly after his release April 4, he took part in the official dedication of a new historical marker at a slave-trading site near Calvary Episcopal Church. As Franklin and others read the names of enslaved people sold there, observers sobbed.
Unlike the liturgy where people not of African descent asked for forgiveness and people of African descent mourned their ancestors, there was no repentance from the city where Dr. King was killed.
By early morning April 4, the museum was ready. The front of the museum had been transformed, with a black drape covering the facade and Jumbotrons. Neat rows of seats for sponsors and VIPs were cordoned off from the crowd, estimated to be between 5,000 to 7,000 people.
Here, too, the struggle between radicals and respectability played out.
“You have some politicians who are so arrogant they will stand on a stage and say that they honor Dr. King while every day they dishonor him with policy,” said Barber, who with the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis co-founded the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.
“No change!” yelled a dozen or so activists at Gov. Bill Haslam, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, all white men, as they briefly spoke.
“The challenges that lie before us are the challenges of King — challenges of raising our children to be respectable and law-abiding adults,” said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, a former county sheriff. (Luttrell was one of the four elected officials — all white men — who in 2017 signed a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to end its oversight of Juvenile Court, which a DOJ investigation found treats black children more harshly than white children at every stage of the process.)
As the bells tolled 39 times at 6:01 — once for every year King lived — the crowd seemed reverently quiet but showed no particular emotion. The event ended with upbeat tunes from crooner Al Green.
The vibrant April 4 commemoration open to all comers contrasted with a $100-a-ticket “Evening of Storytelling” (or nearly 14 hours of work for a minimum wage employee) hosted by NBC news anchor Tamron Hall and featuring civil rights icons, including Congressman John Lewis and Children’s Defense Fund Founder Marian Wright Edelman.
The Rev. James Lawson, noted for theorizing and teaching nonviolent tactics of the movement to the likes of Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel, was quite animated.
“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.”
Black Americans “do not have a political party,” so they are going to have to organize a new Democratic party “that will do our will,” Lawson said.
And thus concluded the formal MLK50 commemoration.
“Lately Memphis been engaged in a kind of gross boosterism that prefigures the spectacular simulacra that is MLK50,” wrote Dr. Zandria Robinson, a professor and founder of the Center for Southern Literary Arts, this month for Scalawag magazine.
Robinson, a native Memphian, recalled school visits to the museum, “like a long Groundhog Day funeral, King living and then dying and then being resurrected by each visitor to die again on the balcony.”
“In Memphis, in particular, because we been taught that King’s death made us free, we especially have been trying to understand by so many means what exactly went wrong.”
The permanence of this moment is two new green spaces. Next to Clayborn Temple, a home base for strikers in 1968, I Am A Man Plaza stands as a memorial to the workers, whose names are engraved in a wall there. A few blocks away, MLK Reflection Park is the new home of the Mountaintop sculpture, created by Richard Hunt 41 years ago.
The latter park is sponsored by some of the area’s largest employers, including the behemoth FedEx, with 30,000 workers. It, too, declined to say whether it pays workers enough to live on, as did another sponsor, Nike. FedEx’s CEO, Fred Smith, was paid $15.6 million in 2017.
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power,” King said.
Fifty years after the strike was settled on April 16, Memphis has no comprehensive poverty reduction plan. And Local 1733, the AFSCME bargaining unit that won recognition in 1968, is working without a contract.
On this MLK50, was corporate influence heavier than activism? Do we still proclaim the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice? It may be that the answers can only be seen in a rearview mirror, after we’ve gotten some distance from April 2018.
No matter the answer, what King said the night before his assassination remains true: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.”
Deborah Douglas, Peggy Burch, Micaela Watts, J. Dylan Sandifer, Kevin McKenzie, Leanne Kleinmann and Kirstin Cheers contributed to this report.
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.