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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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For local activists, all is not OK – not by a long shot

One of the self-evident truths about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” legacy is that it’s embraced by people with starkly different views of where Memphis and the nation are 50 years after his assassination.

This week in Memphis, much of the spotlight has been on commemoration events that have been decidedly tribute-oriented. As the events have unfolded, some who see themselves as grassroots-level activists and supporters have – to varying degrees – been turned off by what they deem as shortsighted measurement of the last 50 years.

So, while voicing their respect for Dr. King, they have put the emphasis on what they think needs to happen going forward in light of their assessments of the status quo.

After the April 4 commemoration is done, “The people who live in the Riverview-Kansas area, the people who live in the Hollywood area – they’re still going to be living in poverty,” said Erica Perry.

“This is a beautiful moment for us to dig deep and work together and address our needs – that means people from all walks of life,” Erica Perry said.

A local attorney and leader of the Official Black Lives Matter chapter in Memphis, Perry has helped put together a bail fund for indigent citizens jailed for minor crimes and who don’t have the means to bail themselves out.

“We’re connecting with our people to really reimagine Memphis while honoring the legacy of Dr. King,” Perry said. “We’re not just saying we want to eradicate poverty, but we’re going out to those places and asking ‘Yo, what do you need?”

Sobering stats say Memphis is saddled with a poverty problem. The Rev. Earle J. Fisher takes the position that reality cries out for him to do what one can routinely find him doing – “speaking on the front line in the thickets and in the weeds. … I’m not just talking from places of convenience and comfort.”

The pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and lead organizer of the Memphis/Shelby County Voter Collaborative, Fisher declares it his responsibility to “tell the truth.”

“It’s not hard to wonder what he (Dr. King) would say (about the state of affairs),” Fisher said. “He’s still speaking it. You really hear him coming through many of our mouths, you read him coming through many of our pens.”

Citing low wages and low voter turnout in a city that is more than 60 percent black, Fisher and those of like mind maintain that not much progress has been made in Memphis since Dr. King was killed here on April 4, 1968.

Tami Sawyer emerged as #TakeEmDown901’s most public face as the movement sought the removal of the statues saluting Confederate-era figures Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate State of America, from two Memphis parks.

“What I wanted to show is ‘look at how hard our city and state has made it to remove these monuments of oppression. If we can’t remove the physical embodiment of oppression, how hard will it be to remove it from our policy and our everyday lives?”

And while the pushback goes on, the statues are gone and Sawyer, who now is running for a seat on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, recoils from the assertions of public officials who keep “trying to tell people what the challenges aren’t and what they don’t understand.

“They understand their existence very well. I do believe people are speaking out more. People are saying, Things are not OK here.”

Meanwhile, “the people who live in the Riverview-Kansas area, the people who live in the Hollywood area – they’re still going to be living in poverty,” Perry said of life after April 4. “What we can do is commit ourselves to changing those things.”

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