By Lee Eric Smith
It only took one round of golf at the British Open for Tiger Woods to dash the hopes of fans hoping to see him this week at the FedEx-St. Jude World Golf Championships this week.
“It’s more frustrating than anything else because this is a major championship and I love playing in these events,” Woods said after finishing two rounds at 6-over 148 with no birdies on the par 5s for the week. “And unfortunately, I’ve only had a chance to win one of them and was able to do it. But the other three, I didn’t do very well.”
Given his considerable health issues – multiple back and knee surgeries, a 2017 bout with addiction to prescription painkillers – it might have been a pipe dream for fans to expect Woods to play two major events in consecutive weeks in any case.
“I just want some time off. Just to get away from it,” Woods said after bowing out at the British Open. “There’s been a lot of travel, a lot of time in the air, a lot of moving around, different hotels . . . I just want to go home.”
But even younger golfers are having to adjust to how fast the major golf tournaments are coming around. Woods’ won The Masters in April. The PGA Championship was in May. The U.S. Open was in June, and July brings two majors: The British Open last week and this week’s WGC at TPC Southwind here in Memphis.
“I think everyone’s been trying to figure out the schedule this year, for sure,” said Justin Rose said in his pre-WGC remarks. “For me now, it’s about – this is I would say my last chance to position myself before the Playoffs really get underway.”
“It seems yesterday we were playing in Augusta and all of a sudden the four majors are gone,” said Italian golfer Francesco Molinari, who is skipping the World Golf Championships event this week. “So I think it’s something that hopefully next year we will get more used to it. But this year it’s been a big change.”
Molinari wasn’t alone in his thinking.
“The schedule has been tough this year,” Tommy Fleetwood said. “If you’re not playing great, you actually don’t have time this year to develop your game because you don’t have that time to take periods off, really. You’re constantly playing and you always have to turn up and perform with the way that it goes.”
Rory McIlroy and Jason Day played miserably at the The British Open, failing to make the cut. But does the extra rest give them an advantage for the WGC?
“They’re more rested than I am or than others are, but I’m sure they also wish that they had played well and they felt better about their game,” said Justin Thomas. “For me, I feel like I’ve had success in the past of playing weeks in a row. That’s kind of why I’m hoping to let that momentum go for another about five weeks or so and see if we can keep it rolling.”
First timers, sort of
Many of the golfers have played in the FedEx-St. Jude Invitational. And many have also played the WGC Championship. But this is the first year that the WGC has been played in Memphis, so it will be a new experience for everyone.
“I’ve always wanted to play this golf course and I’ve always wanted to play this tournament,” Thomas said. “Just being the week before the U.S. Open, the timing didn’t make sense and it didn’t work out. So unfortunately we have to miss a lot of tournaments because of scheduling.”
Wolfe played 18 holes at TPC Southwind on Tuesday, and gained an appreciation for the challenges it will bring.
“This is the first time I saw the course and I can see why it’s a tough golf course,” Wolfe said. “It’s narrow fairways, greens are small and fast, and if this place firms up, I could definitely see it being one of the hardest on Tour. I’m really excited to see where my game holds up against these guys.”
Brooks Koepka is no stranger to TPC Southwind, having played 20 rounds on the course, including last year’s FedEx-St. Jude Invitational.
“I love this place. This place has always been good to me. I feel like I play it really well,” Koepka said. “I enjoy the golf course, I enjoy Memphis. It’s a fun place to come back year after year, so I’ve enjoyed it. This golf course, obviously with a little bit of rain, it’s a little bit softer than it has been in years past, but the golf course is in probably the best shape I’ve seen it the last four years.”
‘Cue before Tee?
You knew this was coming. Anytime a major event brings celebrities to Memphis, media has to ask them about barbecue. It may be mandatory. But the golfers took the questions in stride.
“I’m excited to go get some barbecue at some point,” Thomas said. “It’s similar to Alabama, we had some pretty good barbecue places in Tuscaloosa. I’ll try to check at least a barbecue spot or two out. I know it’s going to be an enjoyable week.”
Justin Rose said he’s looking forward to sampling the Bluff City’s food and culture.
“I’ve never been here before, so I just feel like there’s a really nice vibe out there,” Rose said. “I’m looking forward to experiencing all that Memphis has to offer. Sorry to kind of hedge the question, but yeah, give me a couple days.”
But no ‘cue for Koepka.
“I always bring a chef this week,” he said. “Barbecue isn’t really on my diet unfortunately. We stick to the house.”
Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender
By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, Special to the New Tri-State Defender
Dr. Andrea Lewis Miller, who was once deemed the right candidate at the right moment “for such a time as this” at LeMoyne-Owen College, will not get a second term as president.
The first woman appointed president of the then 153-year-old college, the city’s only historically black college/university (HBCU), Miller, a graduate of the college, learned in mid-June that the LeMoyne-Owen College Board of Trustees would not pick up her contract this September.
Amid considerable optimism, Miller became the 12th president on Sept. 1, 2015. She brought with her 20 years of experience in higher learning, exiting Baton Rouge Community College for the return to Memphis. She was the second LOC graduate to serve as president.
A statement released on Tuesday confirmed the rumblings that Dr. Miller was out. “(The) Board of Trustees is grateful for Dr. Miller’s service and commitment to LeMoyne-Owen for the past four years.”
Neither Miller nor Board of Trustee’s Chair Dr. Christopher Davis had returned calls by TSD press time. Davis did indicate that an interim would be named; no timetable was given.
Miller set an ambitious agenda for LeMoyne-Owen College. Initially established as a “teachers’ college” like many other HBCUs, the liberal arts institution was put on an overhaul course that included the goal of offering students more relevant courses of study.
Steps in the new direction garnered both supporters and adversaries of her proposed changes. During LOC’s 2016 commencement exercises, shipping giant FedEx gave the college $1 million for technology upgrades – and another $100,000 as a scholarship endowment.
Meanwhile, enrollment did not change significantly for the better. And in 2017, a vote of “no confidence by some faculty members added to Miller’s challenges.
Along the way came charges of nepotism and ineffective leadership by some student government leaders, who sought Miller’s removal.
In response, Miller assessed the charges by students as “a few, just a few who do not want to see me succeed.”
Alumni, who met with student leaders, joined the call to remove Miller. Several meetings over the past few months indicated that members of the Board of Trustees were split on whether to move forward with her.
The Faculty Senate at LeMoyne-Owen College issued a second vote of no confidence after accusing Miller of plagiarizing world-renowned pastor Joel Osteen’s sermon – entitled “I’m Still Standing – during her Oct. 2018 convocation address to incoming freshmen.
At the time, Michael Robinson, a professor and president of the college’s faculty organization, told reporters, “The president is the highest academic and administrative officer…and sets the standard for ethical and moral conduct at the college as well…These are some serious allegations, because it impacts the credibility of the college because the president is the face of the organization…and that’s a serious infraction.”
In a written statement released after the plagiarism assertion, Miller defended her use of Osteen’s remarks, also implying that it was an “oversight” not to credit him. The matter, she said, did not “constitute a serious breach of academic standards that would rise to a level of review for faculty or students.”
Miller also has defended her tenure as president, saying that LeMoyne-Owen must evolve its curriculum to properly serve students in a changing world and job market. She has said criticism of her leadership stems mostly from resistance to what she believes is necessary change.
“It is no secret that organizational changes, the pace of change and our new direction at LeMoyne-Owen College has caused consternation among some faculty members,” Miller said in a prepared statement issued after the plagiarism assertion.
“Still, I am committed to ensuring this 156-year-old institution achieves new heights in outcomes for the students and families we serve.”
By Erica R. Williams, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Tennessee State Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) recalled the grim day that he witnessed violence outside of his apartment as a 4-year-old growing up in Los Angeles.
“I remember seeing a man lying outside on the steps, and he was bleeding out,” Parkinson recounted. “My mother told us to walk around him and don’t touch him. I remember just looking back in shock.”
It’s exposure to violence like this incident that Parkinson attributed to his poor, and sometimes violent decision making as a youth. It’s also one of the reasons he spearheaded a mental health initiative for those affected by the recent shooting death of Brandon Webber, a father of two. The 20-year-old was killed by U.S. Marshals June 12 while they were trying to arrest him.
To kick off the initiative, Parkinson enlisted the assistance of local pastors in Frayser, the area where Webber’s shooting death occurred. It’s also part of the district Parkinson serves as state representative. Through the free counseling sessions, Parkinson said he hopes to address the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) related to the aftermath of Webber’s death and other rampant acts of violence that children and families have witnessed within their homes and communities.
A rotation of local counselors is dedicating two hours of their time to help with the initiative that kicked off June 16. Parkinson said it’s something that’s needed in communities plagued with violence.
“Those seeds get deposited into the psyche of kids. The first time it’s shocking, and over time it gets less and less shocking. And after repeatedly seeing incidents of violence in their communities and households, it becomes their norm,” he said “Eventually, those seeds begin to sprout and bear fruit. So, my intent in coming up with this strategy is to kill those seeds so that the kids and families get the help that they need.”
Parkinson’s analysis is backed up by research from myriad health and education advocacy organizations. According to one study conducted by the Violence Policy Center, exposure to community violence appears to represent a unique form of trauma that is particularly associated with the development of PTSD symptoms, especially among children and adolescents. The study also concludes that repeated trauma can lead to anger, despair, and severe psychic numbing, resulting in major changes in personality and behavior.
Parkinson linked the aftermath of Webber’s death to this type of trauma. After the father of two was killed, protests erupted in Frayser. Dozens of Memphis police officers were injured during the unrest.
“I saw people who were just angry and scared. Many of them just didn’t know what to do with those emotions,” Parkinson stated. “It’s not normal to live in a space where violence is all around you.
Pastor Ricky Floyd of Pursuit of God Transformation Center joined Parkinson in the initiative, allowing his church to serve as one of the participating locations where residents could come to seek counseling. According to Floyd, it only made sense to join forces with Parkinson, because it’s something his church already does in collaboration with Agape.
“The good thing about a crisis is that it gives an opportunity to make people aware of the systems we already have in place,” Floyd mentioned. His church also offers a grief class each Wednesday night.
Despite the need, both Parkinson and Floyd said that it’s not easy to get people to participate, mainly because of the stigma attached to counseling within many black communities.
“There is still a stigma on mental health counseling in our communities, so there are barriers for us to even seek the counseling that’s readily available because of this stigma,” Parkinson said.
Floyd agreed, citing a familiar adage.
“You can take a horse to water, but can’t make him drink,” he said before adding, “I’ve been praying to God to give me an anointing so that I can make people thirsty.”
Although the mental health initiative wrapped up June 21, Parkinson hopes resources and participation will allow an extension.
“Our goal is to continue on with this counseling in partnership with churches in our community. And I hope statewide we will adopt this strategy to make mental health counseling as assessable in as many communities as possible.
By Karanja A. Ajanaku, New Tri-State Defender
Jamey Hatley is from Walker Homes and while debates still rage over whether that’s in Whitehaven or Westwood, there is no question that Hatley’s writing career is on an upward trajectory.
Hatley is the recipient of the inaugural Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting. Funded by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”), the two-month fellowship comes with a $7,500 unrestricted cash grant to help Hatley develop her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”
Jenkins also handpicked Raven Jackson, another native of Tennessee, as the winner of the Indie Memphis national Black Filmmaker Residency for Screenwriting. The two-month residency, including travel and housing, affords Jackson, a thesis student in New York University’s Graduate Film program, $7,500. Her feature film product is “all dirt roads taste of salt.”
“As an artist, I’ve always admired Memphis and what it’s meant to black artistry across many forms and genres,” said Jenkins. “To partner with Indie Memphis in supporting Jamey Hatley and Raven Jackson in taking the next steps in their quest to creatively engage and contribute to the diaspora is an honor most high.
“In their work, I find resounding proof that Memphis both raises talent from within (Hatley, a native Memphian) and inspires it from abroad (Jackson).”
A Whitehaven High School alum, Hatley had definite plans – attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and become a corporate executive – the day she walked off the graduation stage.
What happened? So many things, she said, including an internship that contributed to her rethinking her plans. Later, she got a journalism degree from the University of Memphis and at one point got mixed up in the music industry via a connection.
“…(W)ords and books were so important to me that I could not imagine myself being a writer. I tiptoed up to it,” she said. “I was doing everything to run away from these stories, but I was still scribbling. The stories ended up catching up with me.”
Screenwriting came into the picture by email and out of the blue last September.
“At that time, I had no job. My literal organization had gotten defunded, it had fallen apart. It was like, ‘Oh, this fancy director considers you an ideal collaborator. Would you do it?’ I’m like, ‘I like to eat, I like to pay my rent, so OK.’”
That project, which is for a major network, still is in development. The experience opened the door to the Writer’s Guild and primed her for the Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker Fellowship in Screenwriting opportunity.
“I think one of my superpowers is knowing, ‘Oh, here’s your door. Are you going to walk through it?’ If it’s a door and I feel like it’s mine, then I’m going to run through it and I’ll figure it out on the other side.”
That the fellowship was being funded by Jenkins was a huge attraction. She’d met him at an event in New Orleans (where she was living at the time) and had summoned the resolve to share with him her first – and then recently published in the Oxford American – short story.
Content to “just watch Barry’s beautiful movies for the rest of my life,” she learned on Twitter that she had won the fellowship and the opportunity to learn more directly from him.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said.
Hatley entered a treatment into the fellowship, eager for the resources and support to create a finished version of her screenplay, “The Eureka Hotel.”
The Eureka Hotel was a real place in Memphis. Hatley became aware of it while researching for her novel, learning that it had operated out of a Victorian-styled home that she had stared at so many times while visiting a friend’s Downtown Memphis art gallery.
“The Eureka Hotel,” Hatley says, is “a journey story because the Eureka was a colored hotel. … Their tagline was ‘Always open.’”
A short film based on the screenplay now is in post-production.
“It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” says Hatley, who must deliver a script for a feature-length film to Jenkins.
She also has “a few things else that are secret that are working in the background that happen to be scripts.
“But I’m also going to finish my novel, because I’m still a novelist….”
The novel is about Memphis.
“Everything I write is about Memphis, and it’s about Walker Homes. It’s called the ‘Dream Singers.’ It takes place in the wake of the King assassination, and there is a woman … I call her a dream singer. …She has babies, twins. One is born at the moment that King is assassinated. One is born at the moment that he dies, and all the hopes and dreams of this community, that’s based on Walker Homes, reside in these babies. In three months, four months, later in July, one of the babies passes away. That stymies the community. …
“I feel like Memphis feels a debt about King dying here that we’ve never fully acknowledged. …To me, dreams are debt. Anybody’s dream, somebody else pays for it. …It’s really exploring who gets the dream and who pays the price for that.”
America, she says, has never been honest with itself, regarding the root-level issues that existed before Dr. King – issues that brought him to Memphis and ultimately led to his assassination.
“I think art gives us an opportunity to at least explore being honest in a way that’s not comfortable, but more successful.”
By Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., Special to The New Tri-State Defender
With a 7 p.m. parade down Beale Street to Church Park, Memphis celebrated the birth of Robert Reid Church Sr. as a part of the Memphis Bicentennial.
Mayor Jim Strickland issued a proclamation that was received by Ron Walters, general manager of WREG TV and a local historian. Mini speeches took place and good fellowship abounded.
One hundred eighty years ago, on June 18th in Holly Springs, Miss., Robert R. Church was born to a slave girl named Emmeline and Captain Charles B. Church. Owner and operator of two of the most patronized steamboats on the Mississippi River, Church transported cargo and passengers between Memphis and New Orleans.
In 1851, Emmeline died and Robert Church was sent to live with his father on the Mississippi River. Emmeline had secured Capt. Church’s pledge that her son Robert would never be sold to another slave owner.
Sending Robert to his father was his intended passport to the North and the best education money could buy. Church bonded with his son, deciding to raise him and teach him the steamboat business.
From errand boy to steward, Robert served as an assistant to his father in many capacities, learning the principles of business, with an emphasis on bookkeeping. Capt. Church taught Robert to read and count receipts in French. A fast learner, Robert listened intently to his father’s instructions.
“Be considerate of others but always demand respect for self,” admonished Captain Church to his son. “Never allow anybody to call you a nigger.”
This hands-on education and the 11-year apprenticeship thoroughly prepared Robert for the tumultuous life he would face in the fast-growing river town of Memphis and the bustling street called Beale.
On June 6, 1862, the Civil War registered in Memphis as the Federal Fleet arrived in the Memphis Harbor with cannons blasting. Robert Church was serving as steward of the Victoria. When federal troops took over the Victoria, Robert was forced to make a decision: Be killed or be captured and become a prisoner of war. Robert chose to jump into the river and swim to the muddy banks of Memphis.
With the savings from his work on the river, Robert entered business in Memphis. His first investments were in real estate and soon he expanded to hotels, pool halls, brothels, saloons and, ultimately, a bank.
Soon after the Civil War, Memphis was consumed by the Yellow Fever epidemic and the racial tensions that led to violence, death and destruction. Four days after the announcement that the plague was present in Memphis, 25,000 people fled the city. Robert Church acquired many abandoned properties, expanding on his real estate holdings. He could have left in a panic, choosing instead to contribute generously to helping Memphis recover.
African Americans remained in Memphis and by 1878 they were 70 percent of the population. African Americans constituted an overwhelming majority of the 3,000 nurses left to take care of the stricken. The entire workforce assigned by city officials to clean up the streets, bury the dead, clean up the dumps, drain the bayous, burn contaminated rags and spread lime over the vacant lots were African Americans. These heroic efforts were performed with great risk in the true sense of altruism.
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 eroded the tax base and city coffers. Memphis was unable to service a $5 million debt, adequately provide city services and pay state taxes. The city was stripped of its charter and reduced to a taxing district.
The State of Tennessee appointed Dr. D.T. Porter and David Hadden to provide leadership to the “taxing district on the bluff.” Under austere supervision and tight fiscal controls, Memphis began to rise from the ashes of devastation.
Prominent citizens debated strategies to be relieved of the debt and restore Memphis to city status. But Memphis needed investors willing to take a chance on the future. The bond market was uncertain about the potential of Memphis and most citizens were reluctant to take a chance on Memphis.
Throughout, Robert R. Church remained bullish on Memphis. In 1885, he purchased the first $1,000 municipal bond, breaking the dam of fear. By that summer, local banks and wealthy individuals purchased more than $200,000 worth of bonds. Memphis accepted responsibility for the $5 million debt and continued to rid the city of unsanitary conditions.
In 1891, the Tennessee State Legislature restored Memphis’ charter and its city designation. Two years later, Memphis was given taxing authority and home rule. That accomplishment may well be attributable to Robert R. Church for his courageous act of selflessness and his commitment to Memphis.
An editorial in the Evening Scimitar in 1899 put Church’s legacy in this context:
“It may be said of Robert R. Church that his word is as good as his bond. No appeal to him for the aid of charity or public enterprise for the benefit of Memphis has ever been in vain. He is for Memphis first, last and all the time…”
John Overton, Andrew Jackson and James Winchester founded Memphis in 1819. It is safe to say, in 1885, Robert R. Church saved Memphis.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Church; and thanks a million for Memphis and Beale Street!
(“Taking Note!” is a periodic column written by the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., pastor emeritus of New Sardis Baptist Church.)
By Lee Eric Smith, New Tri-State Defender
Lori Black is looking for work. She also knows you have to dress for the part, which is why the slim 52-year-old Memphis native made sure she was sharp in her dark pinstripe pants suit – nails done, shoulder length hair flowing.
In a capacity crowd at the University Center Ballroom at The University of Memphis, Black blended right in with the business owners, the city officials and corporate execs who gathered there on Tuesday. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was there, as was Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. Even Gov. Bill Lee made remarks. And there Black was, rubbing shoulders with all of them, trying to network to find work.
“I look like I belong here, don’t I?” she said, with a wild gleam in her eyes.
Of course, she was in the right place to find work. The event was “How to Help Your Business and Community: A Forum Connecting Memphis Area Businesses with Sources of Skilled, Qualified Employees Who Are Ex-Offenders,” which was held Tuesday morning at The University of Memphis.
“Part of criminal justice reform, being tough on crime and smart on crime is finding ways for those who will be coming back to find meaningful employment,” Lee told media after addressing the group. “When we make reentry more successful through employment, then we save taxpayer money, because we lower the recidivism rate. And ultimately, we lower the crime (rate), right?”
The idea of the forum was to get government officials, prospective employers, ex-offenders and the agencies that help them all in the same room. Government officials made the case for how jobs can reduce recidivism. Agencies laid out the hidden challenges ex-offenders face after release.
“When an offender is released, they’re already battling someone who doesn’t have a crime for $7 and $8.15 an hour,” said Stacey Books, an ex-offender who’s now a program director with Persevere, an agency that helps ex-offenders find jobs.
And ex-offenders made the case for themselves.
“Taking up the trades I did on the inside helped me build my skill set for where I am now,” said Robert Woods, who is now thriving in what he calls “probably the best job I’ve had in my life.”
But for many prospective employers, a nice suit and friendly personality won’t overcome the fact that ex-offenders are legally required to “check the box” when filling out job applications.
Despite the fact that Black said she’s 10 years sober and has left a troubled past behind her, she’s still an ex-offender. And the stigmas that go with that label has been just too much to overcome.
“I go to put an application in, but all they care about is my background,” she said. “They don’t call me back or nothing. All I hear about is my background.
“My background don’t determine me,” a defiant but determined Black said. “Not today, it don’t.”
Getting employers to see past the offense to the opportunity is paramount, Lee said.
“The key is connecting employers with those that are coming out and breaking down the stigmas and making them understand that there’s a real opportunity for them,” Lee said. “It’s actually a win-win.”
Harold Collins, who heads the Shelby County Office of Re-Entry, echoed that sentiment.
“We tell our prospective employers, we will not send you anybody that we wouldn’t support as being ready to work for you,” Collins said. “That means they have gotten trained, they’ve done the job readiness program. They’ve done the mental health part of the trauma that they’ve experienced while they were incarcerated. They’ve done some mental work about reconnecting with their families. And then they’ve also been drug screened randomly.
“So, we’re not sending you anybody that’s not ready for work. We will put our stamp on that individual let you know that this person is ready,” he continued. “And on top of that, we will bond them. So, there’s really no financial loss to you, should that employee do something wrong.”
Meanwhile, Black just wants another shot. She admits she was out in the streets in her younger years, stealing things to support her addiction to crack.
“I got to running the streets,” Black said. “Got turned out by boys and men. That’s what it was then. But I was chasing that high. I was getting it too.”
Black said she spent a year in a women’s prison but was in and out of jail repeatedly. But she says she never committed a violent crime, and she accepts responsibility for her actions. “I wasn’t doing nothing to nobody but myself,” she said. “If I hurt anybody, I hurt myself.”
So, what does she want to do now? What’s her dream job? “Own my own restaurant,” she said. “I know how to cook, clean up. Hotel work. I can do it all. I got all kinds of experience. I just ain’t been able to use it.”
She may get her chance. While being interviewed for this story, Black was approached by Phunda Sanders, an offender workforce development specialist at the Mark Luttrell Transition Center. “We have clients that we work with, and she had a need. So we had to help her with her need,” Sanders said.
“Somebody is expecting her call,” Sanders said. “It will work out for her.”
When the TSD caught up with Black later in the event, she was chatting up another contact who had asked for her information. Networking had put some pep in her step.
“It makes me feel like I’m worth something,” she said. “I know I’m worth something. I need some help. And I’m determined to get me some help. I’m determined to get me a job. And I’ma keep on till I get it.
“Somebody’s gon’ hire me.”
By Lee Eric Smith, The New Tri-State Defender
Headlines coming out of “The People’s Convention” were all about Tami Sawyer, the activist-turned-county commissioner now seeking to become the next mayor of Memphis. Sawyer and seven other candidates in multiple races won the title of “The People’s Candidate” in the grassroots nonpartisan political event held June 8 at Paradise Entertainment Complex.
But Rev. Dr. Earle Fisher thinks that focusing so much attention on the endorsements misses the bigger news story — that for all the criticism of its turnout, process and alleged favoritism, The People’s Convention brought hundreds of everyday Memphians together to organize and mobilize for political action.
“People are centering on the slate of the candidates more than we would recommend if they want to appreciate the totality of the effort,” said Fisher, whose #UPTheVote901 movement spearheaded the convention. “Our central point is the agenda and the mobilization of people in the political process.”
In the run-up to The People’s Convention, there were rumblings that the event would be a glorified pep rally for a predetermined slate of candidates in Memphis’ upcoming municipal elections. Specifically, given that Fisher and Sawyer aligned to get Confederate statues removed from city parks, some assumed that the event was a rally-in-disguise for Sawyer’s campaign.
But even as a diverse collection of 500-plus Memphians steadily streamed into the Paradise Entertainment Complex on Georgia Avenue for the convention, Fisher was on stage declaring that the convention wasn’t just about endorsements – it was about an agenda focused on city finances, education, crime, employment and housing.
After registering, attendees received a handout titled “Memphis People’s Convention Agenda.” The document said that more than 2,200 Memphians were surveyed to identify the most important issues ahead of city elections in October. “Anybody who cannot support and endorse this (agenda) is not capable of providing the political service that we need,” Fisher said in his opening remarks.
Co-organizer Sijuwola Crawford said that legalese and legislative lingo was deliberately left out of “The People’s Agenda” to keep it easily digestible for citizens.
“It’s an aspirational document,” Crawford said Wednesday. “From the inception of the document, it was bigger than this election and what can be accomplished in this general election. This is what we want out of politics moving forward at every level.”
Organizers say that more than 900 people registered online for the Convention, though only about 500 of those attended. However, another 150 people registered onsite to push the attendance above 650. Those numbers, combined with the more than 2,200 online surveys, made organizers feel they’d achieved an accurate sampling of the city.
“In national polls, people use a sample size of 1,000 to talk about 260 million voters,” Crawford said. “So, we certainly believe (our sample size of) 2,000 people can be representative of Memphis.
“The truth is, this is probably as diverse an event as we’ve seen in Memphis but still representative of the demographic,” Crawford said in earlier remarks. “There were people who are black or African American, white or Caucasian, people of Hispanic or Latinx descent. There were people we know who identify as gay and trans(gender). Christians. Nation of Islam. People who identify as not religious. Business owners and the working poor and unemployed.
“We saw a great representation of what Memphis looks like – and what it can look like in the future,” he added. “This was a great step in that direction.”
The agenda, which was officially unveiled at the convention, was broken into five major categories, with multiple policy points under each. Among the key policies on the agenda:
- City Budget: Directly include community members in the city’s budgeting process.
- Education: Measures for student and teacher success that are untethered to standardized testing. The agenda also calls for free access to art and music instruction.
- Crime and Safety: More support services, including those for mental health and homelessness. The agenda also calls for the decriminalization of marijuana.
- Labor and Wages: The agenda calls for the City of Memphis, companies that receive PILOTS (payment in lieu of taxes) and temporary staffing agencies to pay employees a living wage.
- Affordable Housing: Creation of a public agency to end homelessness, as well as construction of more homeless shelters. The agenda also calls for increased regulations on landlords to ensure property maintenance and fair eviction processes.
And that was just the “official” people’s agenda. Partner organizations to #UpTheVote901 were given time to advocate for a variety of other issues, including reproductive rights, a new green deal and the restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.
At stake, said Crawford, is more than just an endorsement, or even votes. The idea is to mobilize money, resources and volunteers around “The People’s Candidates,” as convention organizers called endorsed candidates.
“Our work is going to be (about) how do we build this base for the agenda first, and then for candidates who align with that agenda,” Crawford said. “That’ s just the hard work of getting out and having difficult conversations with people.
“People are disengaged and disenchanted because they don’t feel a part of this political process,” he continued. “But what we want to show people is that there is power in our numbers. And we want to link candidates with these issues and from there, with a wider base, we want to move these people to the polls . . . and beyond.”
The convention applied a version of “ranked choice voting” – a method of voting where voters rank multiple candidates on a ballot. For the People’s Convention, participants voted using Menti.com, an online app that collects and presents audience feedback in real time.
Even that method of voting was its own political statement. On multiple occasions, Memphis voters have already approved a form of ranked voting for municipal elections, but implementation has stalled. The convention’s election process provided a learn-by-doing example of how such a ballot would work.
It’s been said that the democratic process is neither quick nor neat, and the Memphis People’s Convention was no different. Even as the event started nearly an hour after its listed time, people were still filing in. And as a political event, there were impassioned political speeches that stretched the convention into late Saturday afternoon.
Among those giving brief remarks was Shep Wilbun, one of the organizers of the 1991 Peoples Convention. That year, Dr. Willie W. Herenton defeated Wilbun to win the People’s Convention – and eventually the mayor’s office itself.
“The times are different. The process is different. The needs are different in some degrees, but your People’s Agenda today is the same as ours,” said Wilbun, a former city councilman. “That’s damning in one sense, and inspiring in another. I told them then that 25 years from now, we would need to have another People’s Convention, because what was done then will have been forgotten.”
But far from berating the current convention, Wilbun echoed calls for voters to hold elected officials accountable.
“People try to say it’s a generational thing. It’s always young people who want to change lives,” said Wilbun, who said he was 38 during the earlier convention. “And no mistake, the people who are favored, the people who are incumbents, they are not people who want change.”
Incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland declined to attend, as did Herenton, who served as mayor for 17 years and is seeking another term. In remarks after the convention, Fisher said that Strickland, Herenton and other candidates had not seen The People’s Agenda, as it hadn’t been released early.
“Now, we fully expect for every candidate to have to respond to The People’s Agenda, and say where they stand,” Fisher said. “What they won’t be able to do is say that they are The People’s Candidate. They won’t be able to say that they were confident enough in the people, compassionate enough towards the people and interested enough in the people’s vision to come out and be vetted by the people.”
The New Tri-State Defender reached out to both the Strickland and Herenton campaigns for responses to the “People’s Agenda.” At press time, only the Strickland campaign had responded.
“As we have said before, we are focused on the October 3rd election,” said Steven Reid, a consultant on the Strickland campaign. “Mayor Strickland is running a grassroots campaign and is taking his record of accomplishments and plans for the future to every neighborhood in the city.”
Crawford said there will be additional events before the election, including meet-and-greet type events that will give voters another chance to question candidates. But the focus remains squarely on the Agenda itself.
“It’s a living document. We can add to it and subtract from it as needed,” Crawford said. “But for the candidates, we’re going to fight like hell. We’re going to knock on doors, make phone calls and pull people together around this agenda – and get people to the polls to support this agenda.”