By Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
I remember the pomp and circumstance of #MLK50. Plenty of lights, cameras, actions, and lofty promises.
A year later the lights have dimmed, cameras disappeared, action has distilled, and promises have been unfulfilled or flat out broken. For instance, President Trump stated, “We rededicate ourselves to a glorious future where every American from every walk of life can live free from fear, liberated from hatred and uplifted by boundless love for their fellow citizens.” Clearly that hasn’t happened. Mayor Strickland highlighted that we had, “too many people getting poor education…living in poverty…and afraid in their own homes because of the violence that is outside.” We still have not come close to resolving these issues.
So many celebrities, clergy, community leaders and everyday citizens have been unable to maintain the fervor of last April’s hope, potential, and festivities.
Here we are, again, musing the question, “Where do we go from here?” And I continue to contend the critical question is, “Where have we gone from there?” The answer is – in circles. #MLK51 looks and feels a lot like just another commemoration.
Poverty rates, educational inequity, contracting and health disparities look eerily similar to 2018 (and in some respects 1968). We have some new faces in political leadership but still haven’t come close to the political revolution (or even reform) many people were promising last spring.
We are living in a hamster’s wheel of social stagnation, chasing the carrot of political opportunism. We claim to have done better, or at least want better, but continue to repeat practices, and return to patterns (or personalities) that compromise our potential for progress.
We can change this trajectory.
As #MLK51 befalls us, we will be best served by employing a few strategies to ensure our movement forward. We should employ:
Assessments – Where are we really? We have had enough disparity studies and heard enough testimonies from the ground for us to adequately assess where we are. We seem to be reluctant to accept or address the complex realities and results. Memphis is both an epicenter for poverty and philanthropy. Until we can embrace and affirm the pain and the possibility of our current condition, we will continue going nowhere fast and serving the public an unhealthy diet of spin, smoke and mirrors.
Audits – Where have we invested our resources? It is past time for some independent, forensic audits at the government level (and non-profits need to be interrogated as well). We also need a robust audit of political engagement. We need to accurately measure the pulse of the city and county to see what people really feel beyond the pageantry and punditry. Let’s not oversimplify how people are experiencing this complex moment in Memphis and Shelby County. These audits should be done independent of governmental manipulation. Done properly, these audits can help us craft more comprehensive and inclusive plans for progress and oversight. We should also audit all of those statements made during #MLK50 and see who has followed through and who was blowing smoke.
Accountability – Who has been responsible for the manufacturing and maintenance of our current condition? Yes, there is blood on everybody’s hands. However, some people are holding weapons of mass destruction via public policy and producing weapons of mass distraction via public media. Equity requires the righteous application of responsibility. We’ve done enough victim blaming. We must apply more weight to those elected and appointed to improve our conditions and less burden on those who creatively express our legitimate discontent with what has and has not happened. We deserve better returns on our investments.
Activism – How can we mobilize more people to ensure equitable progress? Simply, we need more people engaged, informed, and empowered. Until we organize and mobilize a bloc of citizens with the capacity to influence electoral politics and neighborhood sovereignty, our conditions won’t change. It will not matter how many parties we throw or programs we produce. More of us need to be actively involved in the production of power.
One remedy we are is working on is organizing of the Memphis People’s Convention 2019 that will take place in a few weeks. When I mounted the stage at the National Civil Rights Museum for #MLK50 I introduced #UPTheVote901 as our initiative to increase voter turnout and give more political power to more people. The People’s Convention will produce a democratically constructed agenda which will authentically reflect the pulse of the people and the issues deemed important. We also seek to mobilize 2500 people as a voting bloc to ensure increased political engagement and accountability. We hope the convention will garner consensus candidates for the October Municipal elections and provide organizing partners an opportunity to support these candidates consistent with their organizational policies.
I was recently interviewed by Stacy Jacobson of WREG about the imbalance between politics that benefit candidates and corporations but not communities and everyday citizens. As I elaborated on our efforts and philosophies of engagement she commented, “You’re trying to change the entire landscape of Memphis politics.”
She’s right. Because we cannot afford to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That’s insanity.
(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Ph.D. is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Whitehaven, Founder of #UPTheVote901 and the Henry Logan Starks Fellow at Memphis Theological Seminary.)