The Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. secured the bell that rang in Handy Park in conjunction with MLK50 on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

by Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.
Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Leading up to the MLK50 commemoration, I heard over and over again, “nothing has changed.” One has to be blind, cripple, crawling and crazy to literally believe nothing has changed in Memphis for African Americans in the past 50 years.

In 1968, Memphis was ruled by a culture that allowed sanitation employees to be treated less than human. These men worked 40 hours a week in unhealthy and dangerous conditions, and yet qualified for food stamps. In 1968, Mayor Henry Loeb was in hostile opposition to equal pay, union recognition and increase in pay.

In 2017, Mayor Jim Strickland found a way, in the budget process, to give each surviving sanitation worker a $50,000 tax-free endowment. The Memphis City Council followed this gesture of goodwill by adding a $20,000 tax-free endowment to each surviving worker. In 2018, the mayor dedicated the “I AM A MAN” plaza, a permanent memorial to the courageous 1300 sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968.


In 1968, Confederate statues and memorials punctuated the landscape of Memphis. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest was enshrined as a prominent upstanding citizen. Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederate States of America) and other Civil War heroes were honored on city-owned property.

In 2018, it is impossible to find any Confederate statues or symbols. Mayor Strickland led the charge to remove all pathological images of America’s darkest era.

In 1968, there were only three city council members representing the African-American community. In 2018, African Americans make up the controlling majority on the Memphis City Council. No annual budget goes into effect without the council’s approval, giving that governing body tremendous input. The operating budget for fiscal year 2018 isn $668.8 million.

In 1968, African Americans had no votes on the Memphis City Schools Board of Education (George Brown Jr. and Dr. Hollis Price were advisors without a vote). In 2018, African Americans make up the controlling voters of 6 to 4. These votes can control $1.3 billion on an annual basis.

In 1968, the Shelby County Quarterly Court (now the Shelby County Board of Commissioners) had two African Americans (Jesse H. Turner Sr. and H. T. Lockhart). In 2018, the African-American representation of this powerful commission is a controlling 7-to-6 vote.

When these votes work together for the good of African-American people, they positively impact $1.2 billion. These votes can control county contracts, community services and economically empower African-American people.

In 1968, discrimination in housing was the rampart “rule of thumb.”  In 2018, African-Americans can live wherever they can afford to pay rent or pay a mortgage. In 1968, African-Americans had little to no influence on how or where we lived. We had hardly any influence on who represented us at the table of economic power.

In 1968, there was one African American serving locally as a judge and that was Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks in Criminal Court. (He left later that year to become president of an African-American owned and operated company, Mahalia Jackson Chicken Systems.) Today, African Americans hold multiple judgeships.

In the above-mentioned changes, we have opened doors of opportunity. African-American voters must hold all elected and appointed officials accountable.

What really needs to change is the mentality of the African-Americans participating in the political process. We are no longer a minority in Shelby County. We are no longer helpless. We have power in the political process that must be measured when, and only when the ballot impacts the buck in public spending, public service and public security.

Nothing has changed??? Really?

Try pulling the lever.