Activist Angela Davis speaks on Memphis' civil rights legacy

“The legacy (of nonviolence) is...a collective legacy of vast people who stood together in unity to proclaim that they would never surrender to forces of racism and inequality," said Dr. Angela Davis at her recent address in Memphis. 

Guests packed Midtown’s First Congregational Church January 14 to honor the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center’s 35th anniversary and absorb the words of famous activist and scholar, Dr. Angela Davis.
A standing room-only crowd and a sold-out selection of Davis’ books seemed to show that history has vindicated a person who, as local activist Tami Sawyer reminded the crowd while introducing Davis, was once placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and stripped of her position at The University of California, Los Angeles for being a member of the Communist Party.

However, the line-up of speakers and panelists at the annual Living the Legacy of Nonviolence speaker banquet reminded the crowd that the local struggle for equality includes not only victories as well as a vast array of social injustices that have yet to be remedied.

Dr. Angela Davis addresses a crowd of hundreds at the Living the Legacy of Nonviolence banquet in January.

MSPJC Executive Director Brad Watkins offered a retrospective on the center’s 35 years of work, noting their victories such as placing over a hundred Memphians experiencing homelessness in permanent housing and forming a Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board within Memphis City Council. 

However, after thanking politicians Senator Lee Harris and Congressman Steve Cohen for attending, Watkins hinted at political obstacles, addressing absent Mayor Jim Strickland directly: “Mr. Mayor, we can get justice from this administration or we will surely get it from the next.”
Tami Sawyer expounded on these local issues by welcoming Davis “to a city that is 67 percent black and 26 percent poor.”
“I welcome you to a city that underserves its population with inadequate transportation and underfunded, segregated education,” Sawyer said.
“I welcome you to a city that celebrates the grit and grind of our NBA team but ignores the daily grit and grind of our neighbors.

I welcome you to a city that profits from being the town where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and claims to live out his dream, but spends money and energy protecting the statue of a man who made his fortune off the abuse and destruction of the bodies of black men and women, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

A city that maintains the highest rate of STDs and HIV in the state of Tennessee, but just this week our elected officials delayed preventative funding to play political games.”
These introductions warmed up a crowd which Davis proceeded to rally. While covering a number of issues, she focused specifically on responding to the present moment. In a nod to the Sioux natives who have been fighting against the progress of the Dakota Access Pipeline, she began by paying tribute to the “indigenous people on whose land we gather” and alluded to the incoming presidential administration.
“The work of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center is precisely the kind of work that we need to empower in the coming era,” Davis said.
She also acknowledged the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, noting that she has worried it has become another occasion for retail sales and that its celebrations relegate struggle to the past.
Struggle, which is contained in the title of her latest book, "Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement", was the common thread throughout her speech. Covering a wide-range of topics from prison abolition to racial capitalism to feminism, she made a point to link all of her remarks back to the intersectionality of these struggles.

Davis in a panel discussion with Iris Mercado, Jayanni Webster, Allison Donald and Dr. Andre Johnson

“The legacy (of nonviolence) is not that of an individual legacy but a collective legacy of vast people who stood together in unity to proclaim that they would never surrender to forces of racism and inequality," said Davis.

Davis critiqued both major parties 2016 presidential candidates. Although she continually assumed that her audience opposed of Donald Trump, she specifically criticized him for his promise to build a wall, his remarks against Mexicans, and what she called his illegitimacy based on his collusion with Russia and his victory resulting from the Electoral College, which she noted as “an institution of slavery.”
She also remarked that she believes black women voted against Donald Trump and not for Hillary Clinton because Clinton mistakenly believed she could get elected using “an obsolete notion of feminism,” which focused on middle-class white women.
The closing panel included questions for Dr. Davis from Jayanni Webster of United Campus Workers, Iris Mercado of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, Dr. Andre Johnson of Gifts of Life Ministries, and Allison Donald of Memphis Center for Independent Living. Their discussion covered organizing actions, the stigmatizing of reproductive rights, the selection of Jeff Sessions to the U.S. Attorney General, and inclusion of disabled persons and issues in the social justice movement.
Davis likened Sessions to “George Wallace back from the grave” and praised panel participant Donald for her work after Donald remarked that many disabled people “feel like we were left on the Edmund Pettis bridge.”
“We have to be prepared to struggle,” Davis said.

“We have to stretch our minds and bodies and spirits. We’re not just struggling for ourselves or our own families or our own communities, but for the world.”

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901.