|The Rev. Al Sharpton, national president of the National Action Network, was called to Memphis on Oct. 28 to urge Memphians to vote "no" on the consolidation referendum in the upcoming midterm elections. (Photo by Wiley Henry)|
Whether you’re for or against consolidation, the Rev. Al Sharpton, national president of the National Action Network, weighed in on the controversial issue Thursday evening, Oct. 28, before an anti-consolidation crowd and slate of reporters eager to hear what the preacher and civil rights leader had to say at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center.
“If you’re the only ones putting up your charter, that’s not consolidation, that’s co-option,” he explained. “The issue is, why would you negate and try to have political power and then dilute that power and share with others on an unequal basis?”
Sharpton was invited to come to Memphis at the behest of local NAN president Gregory Grant, Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
When Grant called his national president a few weeks ago about the ongoing consolidation fight, Sharpton said he was on the campaign trail with Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who represents the 3rd Congressional District in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I was saying to Congresswoman Corrine Brown that I got to get off the campaign to go to Memphis because of consolidation,” Sharpton recalled. “She said, ‘You got to do that because they did it in Jacksonville.’”
Jacksonville merged with Duval County in 1968. Indianapolis, another city often mentioned to as an example of functioning consolidation, merged with surrounding Marion County in 1970.
The political climates in Jacksonville and Indianapolis may or may not be as cloudy as the political climate in Memphis, but a storm of contention had been brewing a decade before and after the Metropolitan Government Charter Commission was given the green light to rewrite the charter for a new metropolitan government.
Last year, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., former County Commissioner Deidre Malone, and then-Memphis City Council chair Myron Lowery hosted listening tours to gage the response to consolidation. The six suburban mayors still oppose the idea, so do some Memphians.
In 1962 and 1971, both city and county voters rejected consolidation efforts. When the polls open on Nov. 2 for the midterm elections, the electorate on both sides -- in Memphis and the outlying suburbs -- will get another chance to vote “for” or “against” consolidation.
Should it pass, Sharpton said consolidation will inevitably lead to the dilution of political power that African Americans have enjoyed in Memphis. He said jobs will be eliminated, not created.
“We’re not crazy. We know the difference between consolidation and co-option,” Sharpton said. “We know the difference between when you make the decisions, we lose the power to have specific protection over our jobs.”
Brian Stephens, executive director of Rebuild Government, a nonprofit community coalition promoting consolidation, said Sharpton doesn’t know the concerns of Memphians, or “if he’s gotten all the facts.”
“He’s not going to get the vote on this issue,” Stephens said.
Sharpton alluded to Stephens’ comments when he said, “When I hear these people talk about why are we interested in a local issue, it is always a local issue with national ramifications.”
He cited Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., as an example of a local issue, “but it changed national segregation.” But then, he added, “When anybody tries to localize civil rights, it shows they don’t understand what we’re doing.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Sharpton’s rhetoric and political perspective, does he have the “Midas touch” to sway the vote on consolidation come Election Day? He urged everyone in the audience to vote “no.”
“We got to continue to fight and not move backwards, and the only way to do that is solidarity,” said Lee Saunders, AFSCME’s national secretary-treasurer, who introduced Sharpton to the Memphis audience.