By The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Special to TSDMemphis.com
Jesus was a poor black peasant preacher. Jesus led a religious and political revolution against Rome. Jesus’s revolutionary behavior and public proclamations got him executed – or what we’ve come to call “crucified” – by the Roman state.
Most people, Christians included, don’t know about the revolutionary origins of Christianity. The dominant, most legible and “universal” form of Christianity is Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism is far from a revolutionary religious enterprise.
The aura and expressions of Christianity were deradicalized. How did this happen?
Simply put, the Roman government co-opted Christianity. Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity. Some say the conversion came by way of a dream and others suggest it was with a sword to his throat. Either way, a religious movement rooted in rebellion against Rome became the state-sanctioned religion.
Governments are notorious for co-opting movements and rebellions. Regardless how it gets portrayed in the public arena, when governments lean into movements that seek to rebel against them, the goal is to deradicalize the movement and to make it appear that the governmental entity cares more about the people than their policies and practices can prove.
We are watching a similar effort take place in real time in Memphis today.
The city government is planning an “I AM A MAN Reverse March” on Saturday, February 24, 2018. The planned march is being held “in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” But, King was a black preacher leading a religious and political revolution against the injustice.
A reverse march? Go figure.
The trajectory of the city regarding the issues Dr. King fought and died for – livable wages, civil rights and racial justice – has gone from a standstill to backsliding.
Yes, the City of Memphis is engaged in an aggressive marketing and media campaign regarding the 50th commemoration of Dr. King’s crucifixion. Yet, so much of Memphis as we approach 2018 resembles Memphis in 1968.
At a glance, it seems the government has converted from political suppression and surveillance to public endorsement of radical change.
Do not be deceived God will not be mocked.
Be clear, the city of Memphis’ governmental officials (Mayor Henry Loeb, Police Chief J. C. MacDonald, etc.) loathed Dr. King and the movement he represented. They deemed King and his colleagues “troublemakers” and “rabble rousers.”
We’ve heard the same retrograde comments made by Mayor Jim Strickland when it comes to contemporary activists and organizers.
The I AM MEMPHIS signs being placed on the side of garbage trucks wreak of tone-deafness. It reads like a strategic attempt to co-opt and deradicalize a historical movement for social justice.
We’re literally turning back the hands of time.
While banners and billboards are being erected and banquets are being planned in efforts to posit the city’s sincerity to honor the prophet King, a proposed ordinance before the city council would serve as a veil to suppress protests and demonstrations of civil disobedience – you know, the things King would NEVER engage in, right?
Too often our city leadership is content with talking out of both sides of its mouth.
The next several months leading up to #MLK50 are crucial for shaping the contours of social justice in Memphis and beyond for the foreseeable future. We must watch and pray.
Governmental overreach, police states and dictatorships don’t happen overnight. They take place inch by inch, policy by policy, a photo-op here and handshake there. If Memphis is not careful, we’ll be duped into believing we can pledge our allegiance to God and Caesar at the same time.
We. Must. Pick. A. Side.
It is time for lines to be drawn in the sand of social justice and historical reality. The city is leaning towards the wrong side of history; the side of injustice.
King was a prophet. The mayor is a politician. When a politician leads a march or demonstration but has no substantive policy proposal to cure the social ills that make marching necessary it’s about political expedience and not progressive exigency.
Standing with King requires more than banners, banquets and billboards. I recommended such to the city months ago. I cautioned against the appropriation of funds to celebrate a death when they could be used to sustain so many lives. My cry fell on deaf ears and callous hearts.
Allow me to repeat: There’s no better way to honor King than to implement economic equity policies and remove the vestiges of white supremacy (both statues and statutes).
Anything less than this substantive and structural change is not honoring King. It’s blasphemy of the highest order. We must not sit idly by while the soul of the city goes to hell lured by bright lights with no commitment to black liberation.
(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is co-spokesman for the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition and pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church.)