Memphis and Atlanta will always have a psychic connection due to the history and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Before the motel, the shooting, the riots and the mourning, there was the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.  

In April 1968, King pivoted his work on the Poor People’s Campaign to travel from Atlanta to Memphis and help energize the strikers — his last cause for economic justice. Organizing sanitation workers in the 1960s is symbolic of the work we are doing today at the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity. With this framing, the PSE has chosen to host its inaugural racial equity summit, the Southern Unity for Racial Justice and Equity Summit Oct. 5-7 in Memphis.

Nathaniel Smith

We want to bring an authentic experience and amplify local community partners. Organizations like Big We, Memphis Music Initiative, BLDG Memphis and others are all members of our host and planning committee. They have served as our thought partners and advisers as we leverage this opportunity to catalyze a movement for racial equity and justice. Memphis has one of the most robust and organized community development ecosystems in the South, and we want to use SURJE to showcase this amazing work.  

As a multi-issue organization, we understand the various intersection points within racial equity work. We know how climate and environmental justice issues impact health outcomes for Black and disinvested communities of color — and how the built environment and economic opportunities accrue to communities that are racially similar. We also realize how the voices of young people are silenced when deciding who deserves to live in a safe and prosperous community, and we hope to not only illuminate these issues but mobilize to address them.    

At PSE, we believe place and people matter. Long before the events surrounding the Tennessee Three and Tyre Nichols, we intentionally chose Memphis as a place in the American South that was ripe for a national conversation about racial equity and a way to build community power to heal and repair. The Bluff City is special, with its intersection of people, identities, and ideas. It is a cultural and logistical hub for over 600,000 residents. We saw this beautiful city as the ideal canvas and opportunity to amplify the voices and work of the frontline leaders who help make Memphis a jewel within the American South.  

Set against the backdrop of a culturally rich and soulful city, SURJE will bring us together and serve as a call to action to mobilize for a just equity ecosystem and unite us in the spirit of restoration while exploring Memphis and its offerings. At this time in our country’s history, Memphis provides the perfect social and geographical context for a timely conversation and a call to action around racial equity. The time is now for us to push back against systems of injustice and organize our people, money and information in a way that equips communities to determine their future and build power.  

SURJE is aptly timed because Memphians will head to the polls on Oct. 5 to elect a new mayor. For the first time in 51 years, non-incumbents are on the ballot for this hotly contested seat. Leading predominantly Black cities in conservative states is a reality many southern mayors face. This provides a unique opportunity to lend support and voices from other Southern mayors to glean the best and next practices for leading with love, empathy and equity. 

What does it mean to advance racial equity in a Black city when systemic racism is ingrained in the fabric of America’s DNA? This is one of the many questions we hope to explore during SURJE.  

It was not by happenstance that King went to Memphis. We know that he was both anointed and appointed by the Creator when he made his journey to Memphis in April of 1968. It is almost like he looked into the future and saw the struggle that many of us are still fighting today. We proudly stand on his legacy and other civil rights giants as we try to move the needle for racial equity in Memphis and beyond. 

We hope you meet us in Memphis to join the SURJE and the fight. We invite you to begin building a movement to spark national change anchored in the South, to help us organize a “values revolution” in America anchored by the history and culture of the Southern Freedom Movement.

Our time is now.

Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity

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