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VOL. 132 | NO. 152 | Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Wilkins Launches MEMPOWER For Black Political Empowerment in Memphis

By Bill Dries

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Ricky E. Wilkins says he’s not upset about his 2014 loss in the Democratic congressional primary. He calls his loss to incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen “an education.”

“You turned your back on me,” Wilkins told a group of 100 African-Americans Monday, July 31, at Mount Pisgah CME Church in Orange Mound. “I was made tough. All you did was fire me up. You won’t move unless white folks think it’s OK.”

With Memphis City Council member Jamita Swearengen, University of Memphis law professor Demetria D. Frank, local Nation of Islam leader Anthony Muhammad and Mount Pisgah pastor Willie Ward Jr., Wilkins launched a movement Monday he calls MEMPOWER.

“We are coming in love. We love this community,” Wilkins said. “It’s our community. We are the majority in the community. We ought by right and by simple mathematics to be controlling and running more of it. And they know that. But they keep us divided – buy us off, pick us off, scare us off. That’s how they remain in power.”

Attorney Ricky E. Wilkins has launched a political movement called MEMPOWER whose goal is a black voting majority that acts at the polls to control a larger share of power in the city. He spoke Monday, July 31, at Mt. Pisgah CME Church in Orange Mound. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

Swearengen called Wilkins’ statement “bold” and necessary.

“Memphis is in need of change,” she said, citing “nickel-and-dime jobs” in contrast with economic prosperity in Nashville on a larger scale.

Wilkins acknowledged that some might find his alliance with the Nation of Islam controversial.

“They are willing to stand with me … to turn this thing around,” he said.

Wilkins’ challenge of Cohen in the 2014 primary was the closest election Cohen has had since claiming the congressional seat in the heavily Democratic 9th District in 2006 with 31 percent of the vote in a field of 15 in the primary.

Wilkins took 32.5 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary to Cohen’s 66.1 percent, the highest percentage any Democratic rival has run up, including in the 2006 primary for the open seat.

Cohen had only token opposition in the 2016 Democratic primary on his way to a sixth two-year term.

Wilkins never referred to Cohen by name Monday or talked about another challenge of Cohen or running for any specific office.

He has talked before about a black contender retaking the Memphis mayor’s office in particular and “leading our people out of the wilderness.”

In March, as a portrait of former Mayor A C Wharton, the city’s most recent black mayor, was unveiled in City Hall’s Hall of Mayors, Wilkins told those assembled, “I cannot not say that we have miles to go before we sleep.”

“Whatever divisions that we may have had politically and otherwise, we need to figure out a way to get over and beyond, because our children are literally dying on a daily basis,” he said at the occasion that included current mayor Jim Strickland. “I want to say to everybody: it’s on our watch.”

That was about the time that Wilkins was diagnosed with brain cancer. After two surgeries and remission, Wilkins began talking about moving forward with MEMPOWER a few months ago.

“I’m going to tell the truth from now on, y’all. I ain’t playing with nobody no more. I’m not going to remain silent. I’m not going to be paralyzed. I’m not going to be muted,” he said from the pulpit at Mount Pisgah’s sanctuary. “I’m going to speak the truth in this community whether they like it or not, so that we can move beyond this dismal place we are in. The reason I’m doing this is because I don’t want nothing from black folk and I don’t want nothing from white folk. I just want the city to do right by blacks.”

Wilkins cited the less than 1 percent of business receipts in Memphis that go to black-owned businesses as proof that “white folks do not do business with black folks.”

“You can’t pay white folks too much money. I don’t care what the amount is,” he said. “White folks ain’t going to say nothing about it. Black folks ain’t going to say nothing about it. But let me make a few nickels more than they do and everybody’s got something to say.”

He also talked of going to the Criminal Justice Center and seeing a disproportionate amount of black citizens in the criminal justice process.

“One would think this is a total, complete black city,” he said of the experience at 201 Poplar Ave. “And you know what the sad reality is? Far too many of them come in with a white lawyer.”

Frank said the church sanctuary should have had a larger crowd. She called for “collective progress” that includes criminal justice reform to end the high levels of incarceration for African-Americans locally and nationally.

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