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Jerome Wright

Jerome Wright: Protests are the only way to get the community to pay attention

Aug. 20, 2016

We had a front-page story Tuesday about the annual Candlelight Vigil marking the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, which, from a news event standpoint, was hijacked a bit by protesters representing various aspects of the Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.

At a news conference earlier this month announcing that protesters would be at the vigil, Al Lewis, a member of the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, said, "Why Graceland? Because Graceland represents the tremendous disparity of what works for a few and what doesn't work for the many."

He and other speakers emphasized economic issues such as high poverty rates, low wages, the use of temp agencies, and local government's PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) tax-break program for businesses. In a flier, the coalition posted that Memphians are "broke, overpoliced and undereducated ... It's not by accident. We deserve better."

Also Tuesday, The Commercial Appeal had a story on the front page of its Local news section about event planner and fashion designer Pat Kerr Tigrett launching her new event, the "Ol' Man River Moonshine Ball," on Friday, Sept. 16, at the Gibson Guitar Factory.

Tigrett hosted the Blues Ball, which ended its run last year, for 22 years. The Blues Ball honored the people who made Memphis music. She said the Ol' Man River Moonshine Ball will honor "great things happening in Memphis."

"What I want to do is shine a bright light on Memphis because everything is in such an uproar now. All the political ranting. The crime. The police efforts. The black and white race relations," she told The Commercial Appeal's Michael Donahue.

So, who has the correct perspective of what is happening in Memphis? Both Tigrett and the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens.

There are a lot of great things happening in Memphis on a host of quality-of-life and economic-development fronts.

The concerned citizens coalition has a valid complaint. Our 30 percent poverty rate is abysmal. There are too many failing schools in the inner city. There are too many low-wage jobs and jobs gained through employment services that do not provide the income, long-term employment stability and benefits, a situation that keeps families mired on the edge of poverty.

We also have to change the mindset of some of our elected and economic development officials who believe a $9-an-hour job is better than no job. There is bit of truth to that, but should not the goal be higher? Our inner-city schools, although improving, still have a long way go in adequately educating children.

And, while this city has initiated or partnered with the private sector on some great economic development projects, the economic benefits of those projects do not trickle down to our poorest citizens.

There has been a lot of chatter about the Black Lives Matter and social justice protesters by whites and African-Africans. The protesters have been adamant that the movement has no designated leader.

Critics, especially some African-Americans, ask how a leaderless movement can be effective. Others question the effectiveness of protests, opining that it is better to work within the system to bring about meaningful change.

Protesters are publicly expressing the frustrations of people who have been shut out of the system. They are frustrated with the generational poverty. They are frustrated with long-serving African-American elected officials, who, in their minds, have been ineffective in bringing about change.

They want to be heard, and the protests are the only way to get the community to pay attention. Why protest the Elvis vigil? It provided protesters with an international stage to let their voices be heard.

This segment of Memphis deserves to be heard.

Let's be honest. Those of us who live in the nice homes in the nice neighborhoods have a hard time relating to what it is like to live a life in which poverty's tentacles squeeze nearly every aspect of everyday existence.

Too many of us say "these people made their own beds." That is correct to some extent, but let's not forget this important fact: Most of us who are doing well grew up in households occupied by parents who served as good role models, who expected their children to do well in school, stay out of serious trouble and to be successful adults.

When it comes to generational poverty, those role models (life instructors) and expectations are lacking generation after generation. So, the question is: How do you break that cycle and who should take responsibility?

Frankly, it should start in the home, but since that is not happening in too many cases, it is up to schools, the business community, elected officials, philanthropic organizations to work together to come up with effective intervention strategies to make a difference.

For those of us who live in the nice neighborhoods, there are plenty of mentoring programs that could use our help.

And, here is a question for the protesters. You made your point. You have been heard. What is your next move beyond demonstrations to bring about meaningful change?

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About Jerome Wright

Jerome Wright is editorial page editor and a columnist for The Commercial Appeal.

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