Rev. Dr. Alvin O. Jackson

Late last year, the Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson got a call from an officer at the National Civil Rights Museum asking him to chair the museum’s National MLK50 Clergy Executive Committee. After an illustrious ministerial career – including a long run at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church – he’d planned to settle down in Jacksonville, Fla. and take some time to just do nothing.

The offer, he said, was one that he really could not turn down. He wanted to be in on how to make the 50th commemoration of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis something really meaningful and significant.

On Monday (Oct. 16) at Mississippi Blvd., the committee’s labor will result in the launch of the Moral Mondays in Memphis series. It’s a three-part series of clergy-led gatherings featuring distinguished speakers and guided table talks on social justice issues.

Moral Mondays is inspired by Dr. King’s work on behalf of poor people and the work of the New Poor People’s Campaign being organized nationally by Repairers of the Breach. The first featured speaker is the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and architect of Moral Mondays in North Carolina.

Jackson visited The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday to talk about the Moral Mondays in Memphis initiative and more.

Karanja A. Ajanaku – Why is this important to you and why is it important to the city?

Rev. Alvin O’Neal Jackson – I think the city has been given an opportunity with this. People all over the world are planning all kinds of things coming to Memphis and MLK50. It’s an opportunity for us to reflect and maybe think about how we could maybe have some long- term effect and some change here; to really do something meaningful. … We’ve been meeting since October of last year probably on a monthly basis with Memphis clergy just kind of talking about how we want to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.

KAA – How did you go about putting the working group together?

Rev. Jackson – I was in Memphis for 20 years,  so I knew a lot of folks here. It was just calling together some people … bringing groups together.

KAA – What kind of response did you get?

Rev. Jackson – The response has been generally good. I would say that probably about 100 pastors in the city are involved in one way or another. … I really didn’t have to do a lot of convincing. …

I think very quickly we were all kind of the same mind that this needed to be more than just a commemoration. …It had to be connecting the dots with where we currently are and kind of a continuation, a commencement or convocation. It had to be the start of something. How do we use this to maybe start a movement?

So basically three things have come out of this. One, we decided that we want to do a poverty audit, an audit on poverty of Memphis. To look at the faces of poverty 1968, 2018. And to see kind of where we are. We’re working with the University of Memphis with the School of Social Work and some other folks around the country on this. And already it’s pretty clear that things have gotten worse rather than better.

KAA – How can that be?

Rev. Jackson – Well, you’ve got more people today working sometimes two and three jobs. They working and they still are in poverty. Those numbers have grown significantly. We want to paint that picture. There may be some suggestions about ways we could get there. We are working with this Fight for $15 group looking at that minimum wage of $15 an hour … and other groups that are doing various things.

We also are putting a theological framework on it because folks go to that scripture where Jesus said the poor you will have with you always. That (people pointing to that reference) is kind of a cop out to say you will always have the poor, there is nothing we can do. You’ve got to really dig deeper with that because Jesus had a lot to say about changing the conditions of poverty.  So we’re doing a theological framework on that as we as we work through that.

KAA – How do you quicken the heart of the city’s leaders to have a more concentrated, focused approach to actually do something about poverty?

Rev. Jackson –  You’ve got to get to the will. All of the resources are here to address it. That was one of the things Dr. King was saying with his Poor People’s Campaign. … This country has the resources to address poverty but we don’t have the will. We’ve just got to keep working on getting to the will to do it…This is not going to be a cure all but we’re doing what we’re calling three Moral Mondays. The first one is Monday, October 16th at Mississippi Boulevard… and we bring in William Barber from North Carolina. … We’re launching this new Poor People’s Campaign…. It’s going to be a lot preaching to the choir, but hopefully we will get some other folks involved.

KAA – Who’s in the choir?

Rev. Jackson – We’ve got some faith leaders and some activists out there who are in the choir. We haven’t really done a very good job of collaborating with each other and organizing. We’ve been doing some training around this trying to figure out how we can do that better. … It’s slow plodding work; it’s not easy work to do. There were not just hordes of people following Dr. King in 1968…

KAA – Well, if you live in Jacksonville How are you going to be involved in an ongoing way?

Rev. Jackson – I’ve been coming to Memphis on a monthly basis. I’ve been in Memphis every month since October of last year. I’m here a couple of times a month just meeting with folks quietly trying to organize. I’ve been doing a lot of collaboration with Dr. Barber … going to some of his national training events. it’s just been a very slow kind of organizing process.

KAA – Is there some thought about Memphis maybe becoming a model city for how you do this elsewhere?

Rev. Jackson – That would be wonderful but we want to we want to see if we could we can pull this off in Memphis. I’ve also been going to other cities too. I’m going to L.A. next month then to Denver, Colorado. I’ve been to D.C. working with clergy there. Dr. Barbara is also doing a national piece where he’s doing 25 regional events and they are planning a big new Poor People’s Campaign that will start Mothers Day weekend from Marks, Miss.  and from other communities around the country and we’ll end it on Pentecost. So there are a number of things we’re doing relative to Moral Mondays.

KAA – Define moral for me in the context of the series.

Rev. Jackson – Dr. King often said that  we’ve got to have it in this country a moral revolution of values. He talked about the giant triplets of racism, materialism and extreme militarism and that the only way to address that triplet of evil is a moral revolution of values and … it has to come from that moral center.

So it’s not the religious left or the religious right but it’s the moral center. It’s doing what’s  right. What is the right thing to do?

The words of Jesus, the words of the Hebrew prophets, the words of of all of the great religions of the world point to the concern for the poor, for the outsider, for the immigrant.   It’s kind of reminding us of what that moral call is

KAA – So you’re saying that you can have a moral evolution apart from a spiritual evolution?

Rev. Jackson – I think we’re using moral in a big way. It’s spiritual too. Sometimes when we talk spiritual we’re talking a particular faith tradition but this is a big-tent situation where we’ve got Christians and Jews and Muslims and people of no faith. People of no faith can join into this thing. We’re not just talking about folks who are under a label. Everybody is a part of this thing. That’s the only way we’re gonna change…

KAA – Why do you think you’ll be successful when other efforts have not made it?

Rev. Jackson –  There’s no guarantee that it is going to be successful. First of all. But  we’re doing some very slow, plodding organizing. Their are going to be 25 regional events across the country. It’s a lot of organizing and work going into this.

KAA – Are you involving this bubbling of younger energy that’s out there relative to things like Black Lives Matter and just on on a wide variety.

Rev. Jackson – We’re in conversation with all of those folks. We have a goal … Starting that Mother’s Day weekend … what we’re asking is for all of those groups to be a part of the training sessions that we are doing so we’re doing. There are 25 regional events where there is ongoing training going on. This is going to be peaceful, nonviolent protests. That’s going to happen … and we’re going to end up in D.C. sometime around that second or third week of June. All kinds of folks are involved. Some folks from the Black Lives Matter movement, folks from the LGBT community. It’s very diverse.

KAA –Take me to Monday night (Oct. 16) and put me in the room. What am I going to see and hear?

Rev. Jackson – Monday night we going to start with what we’re calling table talks. We’ll have three or four hundred people maybe down in the fellowship hall of the church at 6:15 on Monday night. (The Rev.) Rosalind Nichols is going to lead that portion of it. People are going to be at tables and they’ve got a series of questions that they kind of get acquainted with each other over dinner. Kind of share their story and what are their hopes and dreams and fears; what are the obstacles that keeps Memphis from realizing its potential…

People are gonna write notes and leave some suggestions for us but it’s that old community organizing one on one. … That’s going to happen from about an hour. (At)   7:15 people are gonna start moving into the sanctuary. There’s going to be some movement music. A young woman from North Carolina is going to be there to lead people in singing some of the freedom songs of movement; mood music. And then we’ll have a video of the Moral Monday movement of the Repairers of the Breach. Dr. Barbara’s going to be introduced and he’s going to speak and then call people forward who would be willing to sign up to be a part of the training and to be a part of this campaign. …

This is open to the public… The first three or four hundred people will be seated and can participate in (the table talks). People who come beyond …we can send them up to the sanctuary and they’ll wait for the start of the formal program. We’re opening it up to anybody who wants to come and be a part of that small intimate group. That same thing is going to be repeated in January at Hope Church out east. And then in March it’s going to be at Temple Israel. A group of scholars from Yale Divinity School will lead the table talks at Temple Israel in March…

KAA – What, if any, obstacles to success can you pinpoint?

Rev. Jackson – Well, the greatest obstacle is just … apathy; people being busy and preoccupied and just not willing and having the time to engage…

But there seems to be a lot of energy. I mean something is happening even inthis age of Trump and all of that business.  I think something has been awakened in this country. Things are at an elevated state. We’ve been at this place before but this seems a little different. I think that this is maybe an opportunity for something to spring up. But we’ve  got to organize; we’ve got to organize it.

It’s not enough to protest.  We’ve got to be clear about what it is we are standing for; what we want. That’s part of getting down into this moral center. …If you want to use God, what is God calling for? Or, what’s the right thing to do? We want to spend some time to try and get at that. Because when you get to the will … things can happen then. That’s what we’re working on.

KAA –  We’re where we’re made to do that.

Rev. Jackson – Yes.

KAA – You’re talking about tapping into that?

Rev. Jackson – Yes.

KAA – So, it’s not even so much motivation as it is stimulation.

Rev. Jackson – That’s right. That’s right.