VOL. 133 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Blackmon Takes City to Task, Says Too Much Focus on MLK Mountaintop Imagery
By Bill Dries
A United Church of Christ executive minister from the St. Louis area who is active in protests and other social justice causes told an interfaith gathering in East Memphis Monday, March 12, that there is too much focus on the mountaintop imagery that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his final speech 50 years ago.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of justice and witness ministries of the United Church of Christ, was also critical of the city of Memphis for not doing enough for the surviving sanitation workers from the strike of 1968 that brought King to Memphis.
“We love to hang out at the mountain,” she said in the third and final Moral Mondays gathering organized by the National Civil Rights Museum and a national committee of clergy as part of the 50th anniversary commemorations.
“Some like the mystery of God there – the idea of a God who only speaks to a few of us,” she said. “The mountain was never intended to be God’s dwelling place.”
Blackmon challenged the inter-racial interfaith group at Temple Israel to do more than be satisfied with ceremonies and being together.
“Even at this time of appropriate commemoration and adulation we satisfy ourselves,” she said. “We make ourselves content to show up for proclamations and celebrate the oration, but far too often we absent ourselves from the work. … America loves the dream. But America despises the dreamer. And if we are not careful, we will find ourselves loving the mountaintop and yet missing the movement.”
Blackmon was in Memphis last month for a march organized by several groups including the Fight for $15 minimum wage group and the Poor People’s Campaign – the effort led by Rev. William Barber of Goldsboro, North Carolina, as part of the Moral Mondays campaign.
The February march from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – 50 years to the day of the start of the sanitation workers’ strike – included calls then by Blackmon for the city to do more for the surviving strikers.
“I think it is admirable that the city of Memphis gave $50,000 grants to people who were denied equal pay for most of their careers,” Blackmon said Monday at Temple Israel. “$50,000 grants for people who have children that they wanted to send to school – $50,000 grants for people who have grandchildren who were impacted by the negative behavior that happened to them in this city government. It may feel good to give $50,000 grants. I guess that comes to about $1,000 a year. But if we want to get real about Dr. King, Dr. King would say that is nowhere near what is necessary to make that right.”
The city paid each of the surviving 1968 sanitation workers who went on strike $70,000 each.
The administration originally proposed, and the council approved, paying each of the surviving strikers $50,000. But wording in the resolution approved by the city council put the amount at $70,000, which the council approved.
Blackmon was also critical of a city budget that devotes the majority of its general fund revenue to law enforcement.
She is the most recent speaker at a commemoration of the strike and assassination to criticize the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. A city government commemoration last month featured critical comments from CNN and NPR commentator Angela Rye.
Rye also called on the city to pay the surviving strikers more and targeted its spending on law enforcement.
She singled out local activists who have been critical of Strickland and donated her speaking fee to the local chapter of Black Lives Matter and the C3 Land Cooperative.
In her remarks Monday, Blackmon was critical of pay raises, bonuses and other economic growth as a result of federal tax reform passed by Congress late last year. They are the result of corporations repatriating overseas revenue at a lower tax rate than before.
“This is not just about more jobs. Nobody ever closed the gap with a job,” she said. “It’s about a living wage. And if you work 40 hours a week, do what you are supposed to do, why should you not, in a country that has more than enough, receive what you need to care for your family?”
She also called for marches “anchored” with economic withdrawal.
“Continuing to talk is a luxury of privilege,” Blackmon said. “Continuing to meet is a luxury of privilege. At some point, you just have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired. There are ways to make folks hear. We must consider boycotts.”