Thank You!

By Terri Lee Freeman
Museum President

A little over a month ago, we were singularly focused on MLK50.  Not just the commemoration itself, but for the National Civil Rights Museum, each individual event.  We worked to ensure that people were where they needed to be, that programs were rich in content and scope, that the speakers, panelists, civil rights icons and new movement makers were in place to share their stories and perspectives, that the logistics, technology, broadcasts and production elements didn’t fail us, and that we never lost the message of Dr. King, or our theme, “Where Do We Go from Here?”  And by all accounts, it was a success!  Now, a little more than 30 days later, our thoughts and actions turn to what happens next?  For nearly a year, I emphasized the importance of April 5th in comparison to the remembrance date of April 4th.  And clearly, many have taken that message to heart.

Much is happening in communities around the country on the pillars of focus – poverty, better jobs and higher wages, quality education, decent housing, justice, and peace.  The work of nonprofits, advocates, journalists, clergy and others may be paying off when it comes to several of these areas.  We explored the key areas and shared information, resources and perspective on all of them, but one was primary for us – poverty. We partnered with the University of Memphis Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change to develop The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK, presenting and discussing data on any progress achieved in Shelby County, Tennessee (Memphis) over the past 50 years. We involved faith leaders, scholars, community leaders and organizations to address the poverty issue.  We also partnered with the New Poor People’s Campaign to support and participate in a movement against poverty.

And, the idea of increasing the base wage for employees is seeming to resonate.  There has been high-profile discussion of raising base wages for some public sector employees.  And while the $15 per hour recommendation has not yet been adopted by all, many employers are developing plans on how to get their employees to a livable wage, however we quantify it, that allows people who work to take care of themselves with dignity.  The idea that more livable wage jobs need to be created is also a point of discussion, recognizing that temporary employment and jobs that have few fringe benefits are ultimately detrimental to moving the needle forward.  (To find out the living wage in your community, go to livingwage.mit.edu.)

The United Way of the Mid-South and the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis are continuing their focused work on eliminating poverty and improving the life outcomes for all residents.  United Way’s Poverty Unplugged series, seeks to have intense and intimate conversations around the causes of poverty, expanding awareness of the supports that exist in community to help those living in poverty and developing collective solutions to combat poverty.  The Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis continues to take a laser-like focused approach to the issue. Their Vision 20/20 initiative has the goal of decreasing poverty by 5% in five years in zip code 38126, the most impoverished area in Shelby County.  And they’ve been having success!  And most recently the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis announced MLK50: The Next Step Forward grant round for organizations working in the areas mentioned above.  The Foundation will award one $25,000 grant in each of the six pillar categories.  It is a great start and will allow qualified 501(c)(3) organizations to be innovative in their approach to implementing solutions.

All of the above is progress and are a necessary part of the equation to help all people gain access to opportunity.  But the fact is that we will never simply “program” our way out of poverty. It will require both program implementation and policy change to affect far-reaching impact.

One of the ways we, as citizens affect policy change is by voting.  Elections in 2018 through 2020 will provide us the opportunity to say yea or nay to those running for public office.  But, we only have a say if we vote.  With a primary election in our rearview mirror, we can’t celebrate the fact that out of more than 555,000 eligible registered voters just under 75,000 (13.5%) voted in the May 1st Shelby County primary.  While county and local elections may not be as celebrated and sexy as the presidential election, understand that proximity is everything.  And those that have the closest proximity to our lives can have a huge impact on us. 

I realize that it is not enough to simply say to people that voting is a responsibility of citizenship, or that people died for our right to vote.  We must make it clear, that if things are to change for our benefit, they will not change without our full participation.  It’s not enough for us to simply listen to what potential representatives want to tell us, it is about asking for answers to our questions.  The power dynamic must be led by the people instead of by those applying for the job to represent us. 

The NAACP’s VIP901 initiative seeks to provide information about the nominees and issues coming up for election.  And, the Memphis/Shelby County Voter Collaborative’s UptheVote901 campaign seeks to reach potential voters where they are to both register and educate on pressing issues.

The National Civil Rights Museum supports all of these efforts that work to make tangible Dr. King’s legacy.  Within the next month or so, we will document the rich narrative and suggested recommendations from our MLK50 symposium.  We will continue to work with partners to provide statistically sound data that can inform the work of the three-legged stool that makes up community – nonprofit, for-profit and public sectors.  And we will continue to present thought leaders that can provoke thoughtful debate and inform our actions.

I hope you will join us on this journey as we work to put substance behind the rhetoric of change and progress.