The National Civil Rights Museum was the backdrop for Tami Sawyer’s conversation with the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Chicago. (Photo: Connor MacLean)

by Tami Sawyer, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III is the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he has spent two decades “practicing and preaching a Black theology that unapologetically” calls attention to the problems of mass incarceration, environmental justice, and economic inequality.

Recently in Memphis for the Faith & Health Conference hosted by Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, Moss engaged in a conversation with local activist Tami Sawyer outside of Room 306 of the old Lorraine Motel (at the National Civil Rights Museum), where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the evening of April 4, 1968.

Tami Sawyer: What are your thoughts and feelings as we’re so close to the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III: … Dr. King has been repackaged and the radical nature of Dr. King has been siphoned for corporate interests. I read (historian and activist) Vincent Harding say that now that he’s safely dead, let us build monuments to his name. It is all celebrated. He was. And so the real power of a person who was assassinated, marching for labor rights, marching for sanitation workers, is lost in soundbites. But I think that in this 50th anniversary coming up we have the opportunity to reclaim the fact that Dr. King paid for the education of Stokely Carmichael. Four years at Howard … . So he is preparing a person who eventually will have a space within the black power movement.

T.S.: How has this work been continued? How do we continue this work? How do we become the next leaders, the next motivators to keep people fighting for economic equality racial justice?

Rev. Moss: I think you take it, you don’t ask for it. You’re doing it. You are the embodiment of what the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Dr. King … . Here you are in Memphis, speaking about “take it down,” removing Confederate statues or our idols to the antebellum South… . It’s incumbent that in all areas there has to be a holistic approach. From Chicago … there is the work people are doing in kind of the green health food justice aspect. We have people that are doing incredible work in reference to police brutality. We have other people who are doing amazing work in reference to equality around issues of sexuality and also in health care. So you have all of these sectors and millennial activists who are also partnering with people from a different generation … .

T.S.: So tell us a bit about what you’re doing in Chicago to take this fight further for economic justice, for people of color, for low-income people of any race.

Rev. Moss: We occupy space in what’s called Washington Heights South Side of Chicago. There’s what’s called a 95th Street Corridor, where our church sits. We’re an activist church. … We believe that there is a nexus between economic justice, dismantling mass incarceration and also creating sustainable communities dealing with green eco justice. And we have put together a program to attack these issues. One, we decided that we wanted to see our library in our community renovated. We have a library called the Carter G. Woodson library that has the largest collection of African-American literature in the Midwest. But it was falling apart. We literally marched on the commission and said that we need to improve the library.

Miraculously, they found money that they couldn’t find before. But they wanted to use the same contractors who get all the contracts in Chicago. We said in order to do it, there needs to be community-benefits agreement where local people are hired. Number two, the contractor’s from the community. … (We) used all local contractors – people just like us. … So the library will have a ribbon cutting in February and plenty of sisters and brothers who normally would never be hired anywhere now have under their belt that they worked on the $10 million renovation project of the library with the largest African-American collection in the Midwest.

The second is that we purchased 27 acres and we said we’re going to do an urban farm, medical facility, housing, but it’ll be green from the ground up. … So it will be the largest urban farm in Chicago. … When you gather and organize people together, you have a vision that’s rooted in Christ, you can see major changes in your community.

T.S.: So you said that it’s not capitalism, but moral courage that will move us forward. These are the types of writings (King) was doing late in his life where we only get “Mountaintop King,” but King who denounced capitalism, King who was against the Vietnam War is the one that really has encouraged a lot of today’s people who would be identified as freedom fighters, social justice activists. How do you find moral courage to keep that work going … ?

Rev. Moss: I believe that our ancestors and the Spirit of God, when those two are knitted together, it creates a roux that when you taste it, it empowers your soul. So when you look at the work of Harriet Tubman, moral courage without resources. When you look at the work of Frederick Douglass, moral courage without resources. … It boggles my mind to say to someone back then, “You can’t do it. You have a third-grade education, Fannie Lou Hamer. How dare you think that you could be a part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and then sit down and tell Lyndon Baines Johnson what he is going to do.” She was taking the prophetic role and that’s what prophets are supposed to do. They are to press against and push power. Speak truth to power.

T.S.: … By April 4th of next year this place will be teeming with visitors, politicians, activists. And when April 5th comes along and … MLK 50 has passed, as we stand outside of Dr. King’s last resting place, what should we take from this place? Why does the National Civil Rights Museum matter? Why does the Smithsonian matter?

Rev. Moss: One, it’s canonizing our history. Number two, it allows us to reconnect with our past and it also allows us to understand what we got wrong, not only historically but through the lens in which we look at the movement. We have so de-radicalized or highly romanticized and we’ve never placed it in the realm of reality. … We’re talking about someone who had deep commitment, deep energy and said “I see something wrong,” and these spaces … allow us not to romanticize and not to de-radicalize but to place it within the messiness of movement and humanity.

T.S.: So what are you reading right now?

Rev. Moss: One of the books I’m really enjoying right now is “Be Free Or Die.” This is the story of Robert Smalls. … an enslaved African, worked on a Confederate ship. Robert Smalls takes his family, along with the families of six other enslaved Africans, and say we’re going to do a heist and take the ship. They take the ship at night, sailing out of the Charleston Bay. … They were able to navigate out of Charleston, go to Washington, D.C., present the ship to Abraham Lincoln as a trophy. … He then becomes a union captain of a ship. Then he decides to move back to South Carolina after the war, buys the plantation where he was a slave, … starts six schools, runs for Congress and wins and becomes the wealthiest man in South Carolina. … And the book is entitled “Be Free Or Die.” And that was his motto. You said you’re going to be free or die.

T.S.: I think that that’s a great motto for us to continue today. … Do you have any advice you want to give to Memphis, advice you want to give to younger folks like me coming up in the movement?

Rev. Moss: Follow Tami. … I want to encourage you and those who hear this podcast that you are standing in a tradition, that your ancestors are standing around you. The Spirit of God is on you. … And I am honored to be in your presence.

T.S.: Thank you. I’m honored to be here with you as well. I do appreciate it.

(Tami Sawyer conducted the interview that is the source of this story for The OAM Network, an independent podcast network located in the Crosstown Arts District, Memphis.