Illustration by Andrea Morales for MLK50

This one going out to the Memphis rising ‘98 / forever fuck the Ku Klux Klan / ask them punk police / it’s gon’ take backup, it’s gon’ take nightsticks, it’s gon’ take tear gas, cause we ain’t going!

The first words of the 1998 track “Hardheaded” by Tommy Wright III, “the innovative Memphis rapper, producer, and head of Street Smart Records, ” reflect a turning point in his career. After signing a deal with indie record distributor Select-O-Hits — which had quickly become a go-to destination for Memphis rappers in the ’90s — Wright was hard at work on his last solo album, “Feel Me Before They Kill Me.”

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“Hardheaded,” which features Street Smart signee C-9, is a clear highlight: from its eerie strings and piano to its punchy drums and fiercely-delivered verses. Wright and C-9 pack syllables into every corner of sound, until it feels like the song might burst at the seams; they dare opponents to step forward, state or civilian, promising that they’ll be where they always are — posted on Memphis’ grimiest streets, waiting.

So what are this song’s first lines dedicated to? As it turns out, 1998 was a political turning point for Memphis as well. Twenty-five years ago, the Ku Klux Klan came to town shortly before Martin Luther King Jr. Day — and protesters came out in the hundreds to challenge them. Instead, most of them were met by the Memphis Police Department, who arrested and tear-gassed scores of civilians as Downtown fell into a cloud of chaos. 

It’s like Wright took the energy from that anti-Klan protest — its challenge to anyone who dared defend the Klan’s potent symbols of white supremacy — and translated it to his world: “Police looking for the T III, I don’t care / with the smoke in my lungs, guns, and my son, I ain’t going nowhere.”

Surviving by any means

Wright’s musical world-building centers on stories of fugitives, as album titles like “Runnin-N-Gunnin” and “On the Run” suggest. His earliest project, the now-lost “Still Not Quite Human,” “featured a black-and-white silhouette of Wright being arrested” on its cover. 

The cover of “Runnin-N-Gunnin,” his 1995 sophomore record, is styled like a mugshot — taken from a time when a high-school-aged Wright was briefly jailed on a gun charge. 1996’s “On the Run” shows staged photos of Wright enduring the routine disgraces of local policing: from being searched and handcuffed by a pistol-wielding officer to hopping a metal fence with the cop’s gun aimed at his back.

The covers of Tommy Wright III's "Runnin-N-Gunnin" and "On The Run" albums.

When we look back at what defined Memphis hip-hop in the ’90s, we often talk about its brash energy, forward-thinking sound and bold personalities — but we don’t always talk about its politics. In the wake of a 1994 federal crime bill that added new incentives for mass incarceration, Memphis rap was developing a soundtrack to civil disorder and resistance. 

Many of Three 6 Mafia’s seminal tracks dropped in this period; take “Break Da Law ‘95,” for example, challenging attacks from opps and police in the same breath: “Comin’ up stays on my mind, so we gotta drop a busta / a player hatin’ nigga or a crooked cop, run up / if you wanna, it ain’t no thing, I put my gun up.” 

The following year, we got Kingpin Skinny Pimp’s “Let’s Start A Riot,” which references the uprisings that swept the country after MLK’s assassination in 1968: “We beatin’ them down, then we shootin’ them down, Skinny ain’t soft / let’s start a riot like they did when Martin Luther King got his ass blowed off, like Black Panthers did.”

Songs like these challenged the legitimacy of “law and order” as a guiding force in the city. They suggested an unspoken understanding that Memphis’ political institutions maintain that “law and order” through violence and neglect directed at its Black communities. 

That understanding is what we hear in the outro of Gangsta Pat’s 1995 cult classic, “Deadly Verses”: “I want every mothafuckin’ gang member to hear this shit / every mothafuckin’ hustler, every mothafuckin’ killer / every pimp, every dope dealer, every rapper / whatever the fuck you do to get by this fucked up system / I want to hear you, I want to feel you, mothafuckas.” 

On the 1996 track “Visions of Poverty,” Taylor Boyz connect the persistence of Memphis’ drug trade to a lifetime of economic dispossession: “tryna make it where the black can’t have shit, but we gon’ have something, ho / it’s enough yay and it’s enough weed to sell in this bitch / y’all ain’t gon’ never stop that shit — we gon’ get our hustle on.” 

At a moment when gang and regional divisions were stoking fears of violence on hip-hop’s national stage, rappers like Pat and Taylor Boyz looked past those divisions to talk about surviving by any means necessary (or, in the words of poet and organizer Darius Simpson, “by any means available”). These strains of Memphis rap were not necessarily “socially conscious,” but they were deeply political — undermining the police’s focus on community violence by pointing out how the police are violent, too. Taylor Boyz call direct attention to this contradiction: “Y’all just wanna put us on front street about the violence / but the shit y’all do… we just can’t see it, it’s invisible / it’s time for a nigga to visualize the shit.” 

Memphis’ “horrorcore” tendencies throughout the ’90s — images of demonic possession, a rendezvous with Satan, disembodied voices entering someone’s head — feel connected to this idea, as well. This was the era of the “superpredator,” after all, a criminology term picked up by journalists and politicians to describe a growing moral panic over (Black) urban youth who supposedly committed crimes based purely on violent impulse. When myths about Black criminality painted their communities as being violent by nature, many rappers leaned into the drama, boosting their own profile by giving pundits what they wanted. 

Al Kapone points this out on his 1994 album “Sinista Funk,” stepping outside the fourth wall in the middle of a gory verse: “You say I’m sick for coming up with psychopathic shit / the American dream: if it makes dollars, it makes sense / I ain’t the first and definitely ain’t gonna be the last / so all you in the closet snakes can kiss my Black ass.” Kapone brazenly highlights that his writing fits within a growing market for Black music that speaks plainly about personal and community violence. But he goes further: the violence of that writing reflects the violence of American culture, holding a mirror up to it — “this land was built on bloodshed,” he adds.

The relationship between the city’s rappers, police force and government was often tense and combative throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. As “gangsta rap” became increasingly popular across the country, MPD started taking an aggressive stance toward hip-hop that talked openly about gun violence, drugs, organized crime and resisting police. If artists like Wright and Three 6 Mafia were “picking up where NWA left off” (as a 1998 promo for Three 6 Mafia claimed), then MPD was destined to pick up where Los Angeles police left off with NWA, seeing the city’s local rap stars as a moral panic in waiting — as dangerous as its most unruly protesters. 

In 1993, the Shelby County Commission unanimously approved a resolution asking radio broadcasters to stop playing gangsta rap, while the local NAACP tried pressuring station sponsors to withdraw. When Los Angeles rapper Ice-T attended a civil rights conference at the Peabody Hotel — three years after his band Body Count released their protest record “Cop Killer” — representatives from the Memphis Police Association dropped a press release condemning his appearance, “adding that the police union had considered picketing the conference.”

The cover of Tommy Wright III's "Feel Me Before They Kill Me" album.

First Amendment concerns lay at the center of this local war on gangsta rap. In many cases, Memphians sidestepped questions of free speech when it came to rap music, arguing that the genre’s tone and subject matter were a potential threat to public safety. By 1998, when Wright was recording “Feel Me Before You Kill Me”, another free speech battle was set to take place — one that didn’t involve rappers, but the KKK. Neither Wright, nor the city at large, would forget it anytime soon.

The Klan prepares to rally

The KKK has had a long fascination with Memphis, and you could argue that it peaked a century ago — when the city’s Klan chapter had an estimated 10,000 members. At that time, the Klan’s “Invisible Empire” repeatedly fought to entrench itself in local politics, with mixed results. 

In 1923, for example, the Klan openly ran its own slate of candidates for mayor, city judge, tax assessor and city commission (the predecessor to today’s city council). Competing slates pledged to rein in the Klan’s influence; to show the full extent of the problem, Lewis Fitzhugh’s mayoral campaign claimed that 70% of Memphis policemen were Klan members. But this rhetoric ended up working against him: not only did two candidates on Fitzhugh’s ticket admit to attending Klan meetings, but Fitzhugh’s own brother was running for city commission on the “Klan ticket.” 

On election day, riot alarms sounded across the city as Klan members occupied polling places. In some precincts, Klansmen forced their way in while the votes were being counted, demanding to watch in case of ballot tampering. Despite all this, only one member of the “Klan ticket” won in 1923: Clifford Davis, who served as city judge for four years before becoming the commissioner of public safety. (The federal building Downtown was named for Davis after his death in 1970, and this wasn’t changed until just last year.)

But today’s Klan is not the historical Klan. Since World War II, a number of white nationalist groups have taken up the name and aesthetic, with each one operating independently. In late December of 1997, the Memphis Police Department received word of an upcoming rally by the “American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” a newly-founded KKK affiliate led by 45-year-old Indiana minister Jeff Berry. Berry’s Klan intended to protest Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and they requested police protection for an event the Saturday before.

Jeff Berry. Photo courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Extremist Files.

Since the mid-’90s, the American Knights had worked to strengthen their visibility through provocative language and media stunts. In some cities, Klan groups “stuffed American Knights fliers inside free local newspapers and delivered them to the doorsteps of unsuspecting residents.” 

Berry was also a guest on the late Jerry Springer’s infamous talk show in 1996 and 1997, arguing with audience members and egging on physical fights. In his first appearance, Berry asked showrunners “to display the American Knights’ phone number on the television screen, although his producers insisted on displaying it alongside that of the [Southern Poverty Law Center].” According to the SPLC, Berry later claimed that “6,200 viewers called him seeking membership applications” directly from this bit of airtime.  

Once the word got out that Berry was bringing his American Knights to Memphis, prominent politicians, pastors and civic leaders tried to downplay their significance. Media narratives surrounding the rally focused heavily on what community members should or shouldn’t do in response — and repeatedly encouraged Memphians to avoid the rally entirely. When Black attendees at a “prayer breakfast” urged the mayor,  Willie Herenton, to withdraw the Klan’s police protection, he dismissed their concerns, focusing instead on Black community issues that he claimed were more pressing:

“In my neighborhood, I don’t see any Klan. When I pick up the newspapers… I don’t see the Klan killing black people. I see black people killing black people… If I go into a bank, I’m not worried about a Klansman coming in there robbing me, I’m worried about a brother or a sister. So let’s forget about this nonsense. We’re going to provide protection for the Ku Klux Klan because they have a right to march.”

Willie Herenton in 1998

Over and over again, city government and MPD emphasized that the Klan was exercising its constitutional rights to free speech and public assembly: “As obscene, as vulgar and as distasteful as I find their philosophy… they are afforded protection under the law,” Herenton told reporters after the rally. But the rally was also clearly designed to stoke anger and fear among Memphis’ majority-Black population, playing on the Klan’s historical reputation as a domestic terrorist organization. Less than 15 years after MLK Day was declared a national holiday, and less than seven years after the National Civil Rights Museum opened, a crowd of Klan members was set to gather at the Shelby County Courthouse on Second and Adams — just one mile north of the former Lorraine Motel. The symbolism was obvious.

A few days before the rally, a group called Memphians Against Racism announced a separate event on the same day to counter the Klan’s presence Downtown. The organizer of this counter-protest was a local businessman named Thom Holcomb, who said that his event’s only goal was “to let the people of Memphis know we don’t want the Klan in town.” 

Meanwhile, the Memphis Police Department was watching both rallies unfold with close interest. Police Director Walter Winfrey told newspapers that he “[didn’t] expect any trouble” — but that MPD was also prepared to “use members of its Tactical Unit and whatever other manpower is necessary to keep order.” 

Robes, hoods and officers on horseback

Jan. 17, 1998, was a Saturday — the forecast was partly sunny and a little chilly. The roads were flush with melting snow and ice, leftovers from an unexpected winter storm the day before. At the County Courthouse Downtown, an American flag flew at half-staff in anticipation of MLK Day.

Around 11 a.m., two hours before the Klan was supposed to arrive, a stream of anti-Klan protesters began filling the corner of Main and Adams. MPD, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and Tennessee Highway Patrol devoted significant resources to ensuring that civilians wouldn’t confront the Klan directly. 

On Adams, “a city bus, three patrol cars and a line of riot police” separated the Klan rally from community members, and officers scanned protestors with metal detectors at a checkpoint before they could enter the courthouse grounds. MPD also set up numerous cameras Downtown to record the day’s events “from a dozen different angles,” footage that was never released to the public.

The Klan’s rally started at 1 p.m. Berry, the American Knights’ founder, was joined by a group of around 55 Klansmen from various parts of the South and Midwest. Several of them identified themselves as Klan leadership. While some of the crowd wore the stereotypical robes and hoods associated with the Klan, others chose to keep their faces exposed. With both events starting, MPD’s Organized Crime Unit assigned 50 plainclothes officers to infiltrate the anti-Klan rally — which had grown to over 500 counter-protesters — while another two officers snuck through the courthouse to observe Berry and the other Klan members.

A clip of rally coverage from the January 18 edition of The Commercial Appeal.

For a little over an hour, everything seemed to be going as planned. The rally and counter-protest were contained on opposite ends of the street; a small number of policemen on horseback patrolled the barricade between them. 

One Klan speaker, a young man from Indiana, “mockingly used [MLK’s] tone and words from his well-known ‘I Hhave a Ddream’ speech” to dream about segregation. Michael McQueeney, a “grand dragon” from Wisconsin, criticized a wide range of topics, like affirmative action, “the Jews running the media,” and then-president Bill Clinton — adding a comment about his wish to be a slaveholder. Every once in a while, the Klan’s featured speakers would turn toward the anti-Klan rally down the street, raising a fist in acknowledgment. 

The other side of the barricade was filled with the sounds of callouts, boos and swearing. Some protesters shouted things like “Take off your hoods!” and “Go back to your cave!” Holcomb chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, smash the Klan, smash the state,” into a small megaphone. The mass of anti-Klan protesters represented a wide range of backgrounds, political beliefs, and emotions. In The Commercial Appeal’s coverage the next day, columnist David Waters mentioned two signs from the anti-Klan rally that read “Love one another” and “Kill the KKK” — a vivid example of that range.

But throughout this time, the tension in the air was rising, especially for the protesters closest to the barricade. As police helicopters swarmed overhead and snipers stood watch on nearby rooftops, the crowd below them started to grow restless. Some protesters moved closer and closer to the barricade as officers ordered them away. A small group tore up a Confederate flag, setting two of the pieces on fire. Holcomb passed the megaphone to speakers who emphasized the anti-Klan rally’s nonviolent message, but the crowd’s anger (and brushes with patrolling officers) only seemed to grow.

In the span of a few minutes, police turned against the anti-Klan rally. It’s not totally clear what the final straw was, but newspapers reported a few initial confrontations between protesters and officers that set things off. Someone “began passing out white supremacist literature,” starting a fight in the crowd. Civilians near the front started pushing against a squad car, while others threw beer cans and bottles towards the Klan’s side of the street. The officers on horseback began steering their horses into the crowd, yelling at protesters to move back. 

Eventually, an MPD officer lobbed a tear gas canister at those closest to the barricade — and the pressure Downtown boiled over. More officers began saturating the crowd in tear gas, “some of it dispersed in canisters, some of it by ‘foggers’ that look like leaf blowers.” The afternoon breeze pushed the gas further back into the huge mass of people, who began to scatter. 

Meanwhile, a line of police began pushing against the crowd, directing the remaining protesters west on Adams Avenue toward the river. Near Main Street, a small number of protesters pulled down a security fence near a construction site, grabbed bricks, and chucked them through the windows of several cars — including a police car — and Memphis’ tallest building at 100 North Main.

When the air finally cleared, MPD had arrested 21 people for disorderly conduct and another five for unlawful possession of a weapon. Some rally-goers were treated at hospitals for minor injuries. “Hundreds more,” wrote The Commercial Appeal, “walked or ran away rubbing their eyes, crying, coughing and shouting at police.” 

Even city councilman Rickey Peete — who later defended MPD’s response — got caught up in the tear gas cloud. Meanwhile, MPD sent another group of officers to escort the Klan back to their cars, “amid a rainfall of tear gas, rocks and beer bottles.” Seeing the writing on the wall, Winfrey made the call to end both rallies early — with two very different approaches.

Blame it on the ‘agitators’

Memphis’ relationship to its long tradition of protest has been full of controversy: from officers’ brutal response during the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike to a late 1970s lawsuit by the ACLU that banned the city from gathering “political intelligence” on civilians. Immediately after the Klan rally and counter-protest, city leadership rushed to defend MPD’s response. 

The following Tuesday, Herenton and Winfrey held a press conference to explain their side of the day’s events, and Winfrey actually referenced that history of MPD repressing protesters: “You didn’t see anyone swinging nightsticks, you didn’t see any dogs, you didn’t see any waterhoses… We are going to control it with the least intrusive means, and that’s what we did.”

Former Memphis Police Director Walter Winfrey

Herenton emphasized that some members of the anti-Klan rally were determined to act violently, forcing officers to shut it down. “After witnessing that hostile crowd… we would have had murder in the headlines of this city, because I have never seen as much hatred as I saw during this event,” he told the press. “That hostile crowd would have murdered those [Klansmen] and we would have had another tragic blemish on the character of this city.”

If the police weren’t at fault for the rallies’ collapse, then who exactly was?  Herenton referenced “professional organizers” and “agitators” among the anti-Klan crowd, but MPD placed much of the blame on local gangs. Winfrey claimed that a few days before the Klan arrived in Memphis, MPD had received a tip that “gang members were getting together and were vowing to disrupt the rally.” 

As the anti-Klan demonstration proceeded, 15 members of a single unnamed gang allegedly pushed their way to the front of the crowd, where they began flashing hand signs and growing unruly. It was these gang members who pushed that squad car near the barricade — according to MPD — and who ultimately caused officers to deploy their tear gas.

When you look at a list of people arrested by MPD in the day’s chaos, there are some common themes: “striking a Klan member in the back,” throwing bricks and rocks, vandalism, and “inciting a riot” were some of the reasons given for these arrests. One arrestee was accused of picking up a tear gas canister and tossing it back at police. A handful went around MPD’s checkpoint to smuggle items — like a group of five men from Piperton, Tennessee, who were jailed on weapons charges after bringing “a cache of knives, swords, chemical spray and shotguns” inside a nearby van.

But many protesters weren’t accused of being violent at all. One 27-year-old was arrested for “screaming and yelling obscenities at police,” another “for acting in an obnoxious manner and using profanity.” As is common with disorderly conduct charges, many protesters were booked after refusing to leave the area, and cursing or profanity was frequently cited in police write-ups.  

But MPD didn’t identify which of these arrestees were the gang members Winfrey described in his press conference. Nor did they reconcile how police could arrest protesters for cursing at a public event while protecting Klan members who made bigoted speeches — on the same day, on the same block. But many civilians who attended the anti-Klan rally continued to argue that police had turned a tense situation into utter chaos. 

Holcomb, the rally’s organizer, saw MPD’s narrative as more of an excuse than a sign of accountability: “Anytime there’s a problem, they look for a scapegoat. They blame it on a boogeyman. And the gangs are perfect.”

Songs born from racial terror

MPD’s treatment of local protesters and rappers shared some common elements in the ’90s. One of them was using claims of gang involvement as a way to stir up fear about both groups’ potential to cause disorder and chaos. Police, protesters and rappers have often presented competing narratives about who the city’s for, who deserves access to its spaces and whose accounts should be seen as trustworthy. 

On “Hardheaded,” Wright refers to the MLK Day chaos as an uprising: not a riot or gang disturbance, as police claimed, and not as a ruined moment of peaceful protest or racial harmony, as some journalists and civic leaders framed it. Instead, “Hardheaded” bottles the energy of a largely unorganized mass of Memphians who refused to accept the idea that the Klan could spread their message in the city uninterrupted — as its taxpayer-funded police force protected them in the process.

Steve Brown, president of the Memphis Police Association at the time, claimed that unruly counter-protesters ultimately “[gave] the Klan what they wanted.” But by dedicating a song to this moment, Wright refused that narrative, replacing it with a more radical view of the crowd’s resistance.

Wright also clearly identifies the Klan and police as part of the same side that day. In a time when MPD was emphasizing its turn toward community policing, many Black Memphians challenged the idea that MPD had turned a corner — and the Klan rally only made those feelings more intense. 

Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, downtown Memphis had undergone huge transformations: the redevelopment of Main Street’s pedestrian mall, the Memphis Pyramid (which now houses a massive Bass Pro Shops complex), a trolley system and high-end subdivisions like Harbor Town. The city’s leadership was creating a new image of what Downtown was supposed to be and who was welcome there.

People walk down Mississippi Greenbelt Park in this photo from the Harbor Town Community Association’s archive.

So the idea that the Klan could fit into that vision — even for a one-off event — spoke volumes about the city’s approach to race and policing in a way that routine police brutality didn’t. It called attention to a longer history of white supremacy in Memphis; for many people, the Klan’s presence seemed to implicate everyone who allowed it to happen. “Maybe we ought to vote for the Klan,” said one protester as he left the rally, eyes still red and burning with tear gas. “At least they tell us up front what they think.”

In a city where racial terror has often been perpetuated by the institutions sworn to stop it, it’s unsurprising that local musicians have made songs designed to acknowledge the constant pressure of living through that terror — offering a way to let some of it out. 

Maybe the most well-known example from this time is Three 6 Mafia, who dropped their major-label debut album, “Chapter 2: World Domination,” a couple months before the Klan rally. It went gold, selling over 800,000 copies, and Memphis hip-hop entered America’s mainstream in a way that it had never done before. The lead single, “Tear Da Club Up ‘97,” was a reworking of an older track from their 1995 debut “Mystic Stylez.”

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Bill Ellis, writing for The Commercial Appeal, spoke of the song’s “subtle implications of social chaos (global anarchy being one projected outcome for the future along with possible ecological disaster and nuclear war) that reverberate long after the last profanity has been uttered.” But most people seemed to be drawn to the song’s raw energy: ads by Relativity Records claimed that “Tear Da Club Up ‘97” got banned in 17 states for causing fans to riot. This may have been an exaggeration to promote the album, but many venues where Three 6 Mafia performed would specify in their contracts that the track was off-limits. 

The group often performed it anyway. In a 2021 interview, DJ Paul tells a story about playing the song from his car outside a Beale Street nightclub until the crowd popped off: “All the fans and shit outside just started busting out the windows and… literally tearing up the club. They, like, vandalized it… It was crazy. I didn’t tell ‘em to do all that, I was just playing the song.”

Elected officials tried to acknowledge Three 6 Mafia’s success while criticizing their topics of choice — as the war on gangsta rap was still ongoing. In the summer of 1998, the city council considered a resolution to honor the group for their album’s success, an idea that had supposedly come down from someone in the mayor’s office. 

But when some council members learned about Three 6 Mafia’s lyrical style and content, the resolution was scrapped. Few spoke up in the name of free speech, as the mayor had done just months earlier for the Klan.

Echoes from 25 years ago

Back in 1994, Herenton had abruptly dismissed Police Director Melvin Burgess and Deputy Police Director Eddie Adair after an incident where a field lieutenant mistakenly pepper-sprayed two undercover officers. Burgess was ultimately replaced by Winfrey, a Black man who’d served on the force since 1968. In interviews from the time, Winfrey emphasized community policing initiatives, hiring more officers and addressing an increase in violent crimes committed by juvenile offenders.

Now that Herenton is running for mayor once again, the MLK Day rallies of 1998 are an important case study for how he approached policing and protest during his five consecutive mayoral terms — and how he might approach them now. During that time, Herenton worked with five separate police directors — including Winfrey — and fired three of them. In a letter posted to his campaign website, Herenton claims that “not a single candidate has the depths of understanding of the Memphis Police Department as I.”

Throughout his current campaign, Herenton has underlined his strong support for MPD, pushing back against recent calls to redirect more police resources toward social services. “Let me make it clear,” that same letter reads,  “I am pro-law enforcement and defunding the police makes no sense to me… It is imperative that best practices, technology and a well-trained police force be in place for positive results.”

A screenshot from Willie Herenton’s current campaign website.

At a campaign event in May, Herenton offered more specifics on his current vision for public safety: starting with a “reimagined” Blue C.R.U.S.H. program, “bail reform” to keep violent offenders in jail, and a renewed commitment to policing “that respects the constitutional rights of others.” He also called on the City Council to repeal recent ordinances passed in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ death, including a ban on pretextual traffic stops and a request for more data about “police interactions with the public and use of force.” 

Though Herenton acknowledged the “good intentions” of citizen groups like DeCarcerate Memphis and The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter, he argued that their efforts to pass reforms could “handcuff the police,” keeping officers from doing their jobs effectively.

Once again, the city’s relationship with its Black communities is being defined by competing narratives. (The Justice Department’s recently-announced pattern or practice investigation into MPD raises the stakes for this struggle even higher.) And just like 25 years ago, Memphis’ hip-hop scene is flourishing with young innovators who have had their own run-ins with brutal treatment by MPD and visits from white terror groups like the Klan. 

For all the blame placed on unruly Memphians in music and protest, longtime witnesses like Wright have still carried a commitment to uplift people who are fighting for a different kind of city. Like the song says, Wright hasn’t gone anywhere — and neither have we.

LEFT: A business card that Tommy Wright III would hand out in his early years. RIGHT: Wright relaxing at Railgarten Memphis, a Midtown venue, in 2022. Photo via Tommy Wright III’s Twitter.

Justin A. Davis is a freelance journalist, music critic and former grassroots organizer. He’s covered politics, pop culture and history for outlets like Scalawag Magazine, Waging Nonviolence, Post-Trash and Science for the People. He lives in Memphis.

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