“This is not the Memphis that Dr. King would have appreciated and talked about going into the promise land.”
CNN analyst Angela Rye delivered that solid verbal punch during a city-sponsored MLK50 commemorative program at the Orpheum on Saturday. Just part of a scathing critique, Rye’s assertion particularly was intended for Mayor Jim Strickland. It struck a nerve that still was raw on Monday.
“The response I’m getting in the past two days, the vast majority of Memphians say they are proud of their city,” Strickland told media members on Monday, emphasizing progress he said Memphis has made in the 50 years since King’s assassination here on April 4, 1968.
Still, pockets of the city were abuzz Monday about Rye’s weekend flurry of criticism at an event where she was the invited – and paid – guest speaker.
“Your campaign is called ‘I Am Memphis,’ but is this the Memphis that Dr. King would have seen in the promised land, where the right to protest for rights is met with the blacklisting, literally, of activists?” asked Rye.
“Are you proud of this Memphis — this Memphis that sounds entirely too familiar to the Memphis that rejected Dr. King in 1968? Are you proud of this Memphis?”
It wasn’t supposed to have gone this way. The day was to have featured a “reverse march,” retracing the steps of the “I AM A MAN” march 50 years earlier. Heavy rain ushered in an alternate plan, which called for a commemorative program indoors.
With hundreds packed inside the Orpheum, the crowd reveled in the performances of local choirs and awaited Rye’s now controversial address.
City of Memphis Chief Communication Officer Ursula Madden was alongside Strickland on Monday and fielded several questions.
“The reason why she was selected (as the keynote speaker) was she’s young. We thought she could attract millennials. She was given a scope what the celebration was about, which was the 1968 sanitation workers, and trying to activate young people in getting involved in their community and in government.”
Arguably, Rye did do what she was paid an undisclosed amount to do – but in her own fashion. A few minutes into her speech, Rye wrapped a laundry list of grievances and concerns around the city’s leadership.
“You wanted to have a reverse march today and you couldn’t, and you couldn’t because we can’t substantially honor progress that doesn’t exist,” Rye said.
She built her case with references to the rate of poverty in the African-American community and the controversial “A-List,” which named 80-plus people banned from City Hall without police escort. She also associated local leadership with the highly charged “stop-and frisk” police tactic, which Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings insists has not been used during his watch.
“Wrong” and “out of touch,” Strickland said on Saturday afternoon, soon after Rye’s address.
“To be honest with you, I’ve never heard of her,” Strickland said. “I don’t watch the national media. I work on trying to help our kids and community centers and extending hours.”
Strickland highlighted his administration’s focus on bringing jobs to Memphis and said adding recruitment and workforce development has been key to taking the city “to a new level.”
There is still progress to be made, Strickland said, giving credence to the concerns Rye expressed about education and the effects of poverty on African Americans. But, he said, the city needs “fewer Facebook warriors who point out problems.”
He dismissed the notion that Memphis “has not made substantial progress in 50 years.” In response to what he termed as Rye’s rhetorical question, Strickland said, “I’m proud of Memphis.”
The commemorative event had a $200,000 budget. Rye, who singled out the efforts of local activists Tami Sawyer and Keedran Franklin, donated $10,000 of her undisclosed fee, including $5,000 to the C-3 Land Cooperative, a non-profit community land trust serving Memphis’ most impoverished neighborhoods. The remaining, $5,000 was targeted to the Official Black Lives Matter Campaign for its “Memphis Community Bail Fund,” which helps get out of jail those whose bonds are no greater than $5,000.
“We can’t be afraid of progress Memphis,” Rye said. “It’s tight but it’s right, and we can walk forward together, but the choice is on you.”
Madden said there would be better vetting of speaker choices and no more use of a committee to select them.
“It (Rye’s) address was unprofessional and, quite frankly, classless,” Madden said.