The act of using visuals to depict this moment in Memphis, one 50 years removed from the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on a balcony in the city’s Downtown and met a fatal bullet, was often difficult.
In the year of work I’ve done for MLK50.com, I photographed movement work, protest and carefully planned ceremony. We made portraits of people who are stewards of economic justice and the keepers of a painful memory of a past where black folks were denied their full rights: Dr. Zandria Robinson calls them the Real Museums of Memphis.
I’ve been thinking about what this moment would look and feel like, and what my role within it would be, since I moved to Memphis in 2014. To have been welcomed to the conversation through this project, one that is helmed by black women journalists who assert their reporting to affirm truth for the past where King existed and the present where he’s been reimagined, imbued me with a necessary grace.
Part of the difficulty is the feeling of straddling a binary in a city that tries to engineer itself as very black-and-white. It’s not bad, so we’re good. This is new, so we’re good. That was then and this is now. The semblance of contrast allows a lot to sneak in: commercial development that doesn’t pay employees a living wage, commemorative spaces designed by faraway firms and paid for by local dollars, property being protected over people, peaceful protest criminalized by local ordinance, and the jailing and potential deportation of a journalist covering it.
The work left to be done is clear, and I wanted my photographs to help continue to form the questions that guide it.
Here are some scenes and outtakes from the past few weeks, in chronological order:
February 1, 2018
This is 50th anniversary of the event that started it all in Memphis: the brutal deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. The moment is marked by a ceremony for the marker on the East Memphis corner where they had parked a city garbage truck before it malfunctioned and crushed them to death.
February 12, 2018
“National Strike Day” brings together labor and living wage activists to form a strike line outside of a McDonald’s in Midtown and then leads hundreds to trace a path from Clayborn Temple to City Hall.
February 24, 2018
A tale of two Memphises: The city’s plans to hold what was originally slated as a “Reverse March” moves to The Orpheum Theatre due to rain, and keynote speaker Angela Rye delivers an impassioned speech holding any celebration accountable to work left to be done. At Clayborn Temple, union workers are taking turns at the podium speaking on their needs in the Working People’s Day of Action. Rye later makes an appearance at Clayborn to meet workers.
The month leading up to April 4, 2018 was full ceremony that felt like practice runs for the big day.
National attention that started to turn toward Memphis afforded credence to the past as the past.
March 28, 2018
This date marked the 50th anniversary of King’s first visit to Memphis and the chaos that led to the killing of 17-year-old Larry Payne.
April 2, 2018
The National Civil Rights Museum MLK50 commemoration kicks off with a talk by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder along with symposia and the Rev. Dr. Bernice King’s arrival to the city and the place where her father was robbed of his life. An emotional Carolyn Payne, Larry Payne’s sister, is comforted by Holder while visiting the museum to see the exhibit that includes her brother’s story. Payne was shot in the stomach by a Memphis police officer’s sawed-off shotgun after being chased on suspicion of looting a television set.
That afternoon in Hyde Park, a community in North Memphis, folks organize a boycott and protest outside of the convenience store. Dorian Harris, 17, tried to steal a can of beer from the store on March 29, 2018. A store clerk chased him out while firing rounds from a gun. One of the bullets struck Dorian’s left leg as he fled. He made it about 100 yards while looking for help. His body was found two days later on March 31 in a field next to a house.
April 3, 2018
The C-3 Coalition and other local activists launched their “Rolling Block Party” protest that morning. Their first stop was an employee entrance outside the FedEx facility on Tchulahoma Road, where protesters blocked traffic for about 20 minutes to wave signs drawing attention to Memphis’ poverty statistics and calling FedEx an actor in perpetuating it. When the Memphis Police Department showed up, they offered activists a warning, after which the street was cleared. No arrests were made.
Later that afternoon, the protest rolled up to the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center downtown at 201 Poplar. The action here, led by Comunidades Unidas En Una Voz (C.U.U.V.) was meant to bring attention to cooperation between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE,) as well as practices that profit off immigrant detention. More than a dozen of those participating in the “street theater” protest wore blue scrubs and wrapped chains around one another to look like a chain gang. They walked in unison across Poplar Avenue.
When Memphis police showed up in large numbers, they first announced the protest was unauthorized under a city ordinance that requires a permit, and participants would have to clear the street. As they made their way across Poplar Avenue via the crosswalk, arrests began, starting with Franklin.
After Franklin, chaos broke out near where people were coming back on the sidewalk. Six more people were arrested, including Manuel Duran, a journalist for the Spanish-language publication Memphis Noticias who was covering the protest. Duran, whose media credentials were clearly visible, received the same charge as the others: “obstructing a highway/passageway.”
About half an hour after folks were taken into custody, Ashley Cathey and her sister Ambra (both participating in the protest, but had been watching the arrests and the cops clear from the sidewalk) were arrested while walking back to their cars. Everyone’s charges would be dropped later, but Duran, who is from El Salvador, would be picked up by ICE a few days later.
That same evening, at Mason Temple, dignitaries filled the sanctuary for the 50th anniversary commemoration of King’s “Mountaintop” speech. King’s children, Rev. Martin Luther King III and Rev. Dr. Bernice King, spoke at the pulpit where their father had delivered a prophetic speech on the eve of his assassination. They boldly called for intersectionality and change.
April 4, 2018
The day marking the 50 years since a bullet struck King arrived with lots of ceremony. AFSCME held a concert and program near their union hall downtown and closed down Danny Thomas Boulevard for the march to Mason Temple.
The march’s route went through South Memphis, where city’s the last public housing complex is in mid-demolition and low-income apartment housing stands after years of neglect by landlords.
At the museum, visitors began to fill the plaza and speakers’ voices filled the air ahead of the wreath laying ceremony at 6:01 p.m., when King stood on the balcony at the Lorraine and was killed. Leaders in faith, activism, community and government were invited to offer comments. When it came time for Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to speak, a group of about 20 people, many of the same who had witnessed and participated in the protest a day earlier, shouted from a hill: “Fifty years. No change.”
April 5, 2018
It was a common refrain across conversations in Memphis: What we do on April 4 is important, but what we do on April 5 matters more.
Outside of Clayborn Temple, a ribbon cutting for I Am A Man plaza was another cause for ceremony. Clayborn Temple had served as an important staging ground during the 1968 strikes. Organizers and workers gathered there daily and would march to City Hall regularly. On King’s first visit in support of the strikers, many, mostly women and children, sought shelter in the temple’s sanctuary after rioting and looting broke out. The Memphis police department of 1968 responded to the rioting with the use of night sticks, weapons and teargas, going as far as tossing cans of teargas into the sanctuary and dragging people out. This plaza intended to commemorate the significance of this place.
Back at Hyde Park, Dorian Harris’ family continued their mourning outside of the convenience store where a store clerk fired a gun at the 17-year-old for trying to steal a beer. They held a vigil and handed out memorial shirts. They reasserted they wanted the store closed. Anything short of that would be an indignity to their pain.
April 7, 2018
A group of local community and faith leaders united under the name “Voices for Justice” gathered on Saturday to commemorate a march by clergy taken 50 years earlier after King’s death. “From Cathedral to City Hall” traveled from St. Mary’s Episcopal to City Hall along Poplar Avenue. During the march, they stopped for a moment of silence near the crosswalk where seven people had been arrested earlier that week. While the charges were dropped on all, Manuel Duran, the journalist, had been picked up by ICE and transported to a detention center in Louisiana. The moment of silence was meant to honor Duran.
Local social justice organizations were invited to speak at City Hall where Mayor Jim Strickland was waiting to deliver comments. Edie Love, of the local Showing Up For Racial Justice chapter, carried a photo of Manuel Duran in an interview with the mayor to hold as she spoke while directly addressing Strickland. (Her comments start at around 16:00 in this video.)
April 10, 2018
Days after the fading of the national spotlight, close to a hundred people gathered in the parking lot of El Mercadito, a shopping center in Ridgeway Estates, to hold a vigil for Manuel Duran, who now risks deportation back to El Salvador.
Duran’s case has gained some wider attention for a number of reasons: he was a credentialed journalist on the job; he was kept longer than the rest of the people he was arrested with and had an ICE hold placed on him that many argue reveals a complicity between local law enforcement and the federal agency; he was transferred to a notorious detention facility in Louisiana that is owned by the GEO Group, a company in the middle of a legal battle over claims that they force people to work for $1/day (money that they need to buy food and hygiene products.)
On top of all that, Duran’s arrest, the result of an enforcement of a local ordinance that many have claimed is an over-broad statute that infringes on the First Amendment, also happened on the eve of the big ceremony canonizing King, the man and the movement for nonviolent protest and collective liberation he stood for.
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.