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VOL. 129 | NO. 211 | Wednesday, October 29, 2014

‘State of Black Memphis’ Forum Urges Action

By Bill Dries

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Each year, the Urban League releases a national report that puts the “state of Black America” in the form of statistics on health care, education, economic power and similar factors.

The state of Black Memphis discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum Monday, Oct. 27, by the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals is the latest indication of a new dialogue on the role of African-Americans in the city’s growth.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

This year, the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals used the report’s release to start a discussion billed as the “state of Black Memphis.”

It was built around the figures confirming a higher incidence of poverty for African-American children and African-American families than white children and white families in Memphis, as well as longstanding problems with African-Americans building and transferring wealth from one generation to another.

The forum is the latest in a series of discussions in recent months – from a Hattiloo Theatre forum in September on gentrification and creating a black-owned and identified neighborhood-business district to the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi transferring its $50,000 bank account this month to Tri-State Bank, the city’s black-owned bank, toward a goal of $250,000 in transfers.

“Everybody’s shutting their mouth. That’s the problem in Memphis,” said Ron Redwing, among the organizers of the Monday, Oct. 27, forum at the National Civil Rights Museum. Redwing was among those who called black business leaders to the museum this summer to jumpstart a more aggressive effort for a share of city and county government contracts as well as business in general. That in a city whose population is majority black.

Redwing told the overflow crowd of 200 he encountered criticism later in private from those who said his lobbying and public relations firm is doing well without raising the issue.

“I tell people you couldn’t pull me out of Memphis. It’s a goldmine. But it’s what are you going to do to make this work,” he said, comparing attitudes here to Atlanta.

“People like you who are organized set the agenda” in Atlanta, he said, referring to black professionals. “We don’t ask for anything. … We’re not saying we’re really concerned about these issues around getting more business, getting more contracts. … You’ve got to do that.”

“We can chew gum and walk at the same time,” said George Monger, executive director of The Consortium Memphis Music Town and a former Shelby County Election Commissioner.

“We have people capitalize off us,” he said specifically of promoting soul music and black culture in the city that’s home to Stax. “And we continue to run from us.”

Regina Walker, a consultant and retired senior vice president of United Way of the Mid-South, said the city’s nonprofit organizations are undergoing a leadership change over the next five years with established leaders leaving. She urged the young professionals to take advantage of the sea change in the organizations.

“Convince some of your friends to come back and build up,” she said. “We have to relaunch our renaissance.”

Memphis Flyer columnist Wendi C. Thomas, who founded the conversation group Common Ground as part of the YWCA of Greater Memphis, said the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson had a goal of creating black millionaires.

“Who are the millionaires that the mayors can say they’ve made?” she said. “The system creates what it was designed to create.”

Outgoing National Civil Rights Museum director Beverly Robertson, like Redwing, called for better decisions in elections.

“We’ve got to elect the right public officials, and not only do we have to elect them but we have to start holding them accountable,” she said. “There are people that look just like you and me – we need to hold them accountable. We need to get out and vote, and if you don’t like what you see, run yourself.”

Redwing recalled the effort that came together to make Willie Herenton the city’s first African-American elected mayor in 1991.

“A group of young folk said it’s time to have an African-American mayor, and folk organized and galvanized and worked collectively together,” he said. “No matter what you think about the mayor, we won and we made a difference.”

“Did you hold him accountable?” Thomas asked.

“No, we did not,” Redwing replied, adding that political involvement has to be on a constant basis. “That’s not to pick on anybody. … Those are just facts.”

Jeffery Futrell, president and CEO of Young Man University, said the young professionals shouldn’t expect anyone in business or politics to voluntarily hand over power.

“Power isn’t something you transfer. Who told you that?” he said. “That’s not transferrable. You take power. … We’re fighting a system.”

And like Redwing, Futrell said the forum would probably be followed by criticism in less public places.

“This is the problem – it’s the meeting after the meeting that you are going to have after you leave here,” Futrell said. “That’s the problem. Just say what you mean on the front end.”

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