Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Shannon Street Documentary: A Memphis Tragedy

Memphis police killed seven people in this home at 2239 Shannon St. in 1983,
including the homeowner, Lindberg Sanders, after hostage Robert S. Hester was
beaten to death. (Courtesy photo)
If you witnessed the 30-hour siege unfold on Shannon Street on January 11, 1983, or watched the tragedy in real time on TV, it would be difficult to forget the aftermath.
That fateful day a tactical squad from the Memphis Police Department stormed the home of Lindberg Sanders and killed seven black men, including Sanders, after their hostage, officer Robert S. Hester, was beaten and heard pleading for his life.
Hester and his partner, officer Ray O. Schwill, were dispatched to the home at 2239 Shannon St. to investigate an alleged purse snatching. Schwill was shot but escaped being collared.
Author James R. Howell, a former police officer, traced the siege from its beginning to the horrific outcome in the book “Echoes of Shannon Street.”
Inspired by Howell’s work, which was based on the case file, Marie Pizano, an author, producer and director, felt compelled to produce a 90-minute documentary aptly titled “Shannon Street: Echoes Under a Blood Red Moon, a Memphis Tragedy.”
Marie Pizano
“It was my gut feeling that told me I had to do this,” said Pizano, CEO/founder of MVP3 Entertainment Group, LLC, which produced the documentary. A Chicago native, she moved to Memphis in 1999.
Accompanied by cinematographer and editor Keith Cadwallader, Pizano spent two years researching and interviewing police, stakeholders in the community, and the Sanders family.
No one from Hester’s family was available for an interview, said Pizano, adding that Schwill did not want to be a part of the documentary. She said he was blamed for losing his partner.
“I had to let them all have a voice,” said Pizano, trying to strike a balance in the story. But then, she added, “Everybody was afraid to talk about it. Police were afraid to talk to me.”
Pizano was afraid at first to reach out to Sanders’ wife, Dorothy Sanders. She didn’t know how to approach her; she was devastated. Her children, too, were angry at one time, she said.
“When I called her and told her who I was, what I wanted to do, she was welcoming. She was a godly woman. [And] that fascinated me more,” said Pizano, who would break bread with the family.
She’d come to realize the Sanders family had built up resentment for the police and expressed by a daughter of Dorothy Sanders. “She was mad for a long time. [But] she was honest.”
After completing the research and interviews, Pizano crafted a narrative that looked at the tragedy from two perspectives: how it impacted the families of both the suspects and the police.
“It’s important for the documentary to share the truth from the voices of those involved,” she said.
The truth of the matter is Lindberg Sanders suffered from mental illness, said Pizano, arriving at this conclusion after speaking with the family and combing through police reports.
“The family will tell you that he did take medication,” she said. “But they will come back and tell you that he didn’t have a mental illness.”
Pizano believes it was a foregone conclusion within the MPD that mental illness sparked the chain of events, which would come to be called the “Shannon Street Massacre.”
The MPD now has a specially trained Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) in place that handles individuals with mental illness. Manned by volunteer officers, the MPD responds to serious crises.
The massacre, however, still echoes today and conjures up ill feelings – particularly if there is a police-involved shooting and the victim is African American. Such incidents are frequently captured by cell phones and posted on social media platforms.
“We don’t know what started the fight on Shannon Street,” said Pizano. “[However], nobody wants to see this happen again.”
The filmmaker is hoping the documentary will heal festering wounds and bridge the oft-perceived rift between the police and the African-American community.
A movie version of “Shannon Street” is also being developed. “The take away is, yes, you’re going to be mad, and you’re going to be sad,” she said.
Proceeds will benefit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in memory of Officer Robert S. Hester and the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Juneteenth showers Williams family with gifts this holiday season

Holiday bliss: From left: Renell Williams, Xavier Williams, Prince Williams, Imani
Jefferson, Dr. Sharli Kay Adair (Juneteenth Urban Music Festival's director of operations),
Telisa Franklin (Juneteenth's CEO and executive producer), Kevin Williams, Malik Williams,
and Shirley Marlow, the children's maternal grandmother. (Photos by Wiley Henry)

This holiday season has been a little merrier for a single mother struggling to care for her five children.
“I’m very overwhelmed. I didn’t have the funds to do what I wanted to do for my children,” said Renell Williams, 31, the mother of Prince Williams, 17; Kevin Williams, 15; Xavier Williams, 7; Malik Williams, 5; and Imani Jefferson, 3.
Last year, parents spent an average of $422 per child during the holidays, with 34 percent of them spending $500 per child, according to data compiled by T. Rowe Price Group, Inc., an asset management company.
Williams isn’t one of the fortunate parents with that kind of money to spend. The money just isn’t there. Hardships often preclude families like Williams’ from buying gifts for the children.
Renell Williams and her children show their appreciation
for the gifts that the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival
provided this holiday season.
But there are people and organizations like the Juneteenth Urban Music Festival that make it their business to help families with limited means. On Dec. 17, board members showered Williams and her children with at least six gifts apiece. Shirlan Marlow, Williams’ mother, also received a gift.
Juneteenth is celebrated annually in June to mark the end of slavery for African Americans. And each year during the holiday season a family is selected to receive an outpouring of gifts. There are no set criteria to receive gifts. 
“This Christmas will be very memorable – one that my kids won’t forget. This is a real blessing,” said Williams, who gets by on two of her children’s disability checks.
Dr. Sharli Kay Adair sums it up this way: “If you’re a blessing for someone, you’ll be blessed.”
Adair is Juneteenth’s director of operations. She has an affinity for children. Along with Telisa Franklin, Juneteenth’s CEO and executive producer, they wanted to make sure the Williams family receive an abundance of gifts and food baskets.
“As a single parent, you’re not always able to do that,” said Adair, noting that Williams has been an “amazing mother” in spite of her circumstances. “She has overcome the odds.”
“We really needed this for the family,” said Kevin, an eighth-grade student at Colonial Middle School. He enjoys playing basketball and aspires to be an engineer.
Franklin reflected on her own experiences as a child when the family could barely make ends meet and when life, most times, was topsy-turvy. Faith would sustain the family, she said, and prayer would keep them lifted up.
“Growing up as a child, we relied on others to make the Christmas season bright,” said Franklin, who grew up in the home of her grandparents. “They were limited trying to raise their children, as well as their grandchildren.”
The family survived on the generosity of others. “There were a lot of others making contributions to the family,” said Franklin, whose own generosity provided the impetus for gift-giving this holiday season.
Prince framed the experience with a radiant smile and expressed his heartfelt appreciation. “I’m glad they blessed us,” said Prince, not ashamed to show humility. “I’m grateful to get what I got.”
Prince is an 11th-grade student at Pathways and Education. He likes drama and the cultural aspects of theatre. In 10th grade, he landed a major role in “Big Fish,” a musical. His mind, however, is set on a career in education.
Franklin choked with emotions when the children started tearing into a couple of their gifts. “It means so much to see the children’s eyes light up and a smile warming their faces,” she said.
Franklin and Adair plan to keep in touch with the Williams family throughout the New Year.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bringing Jazz Great Jimmie Lunceford’s legacy back to life

Caquita Monique sings, Ekpe Abioto plays the djembe drum, and Deborah Gleese
Barnes strokes the kalimba during The Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Jazznocracy
Concert at the House of Mtenzi. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
The melodious jazz music that Jimmie Lunceford made famous during the swing era was buried with him in 1947 at historic Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. The alto saxophonist and bandleader was only 45 years old when the music went silent.
Silence pervaded throughout the decades and Lunceford faded into obscurity – until an artist, musician, activist and historian discovered the maestro’s musicianship and his integrality to swing music nearly sixty years after his death.
In late October, however, Ronald Herd II was quite perturbed that his 10-year effort to raise awareness of Lunceford had largely gone unnoticed and that he wasn’t getting much traction.
He’d spoken to an intimate group of Lunceford devotees on Oct. 28 at the House of Mtenzi in Midtown Memphis minutes before the start of the Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Jazznocracy Concert, which he produced primarily singlehandedly.
Jimmie Lunceford
The concert was part of the first annual seven-day Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival that Herd – along with his mother, Callie Herd – founded to honor the legacy of the late extraordinary bandleader in order to secure his place in the annals of history and the world of jazz music.
He’d taken to social media to amp up visibility and awareness, which included radio interviews and news stories highlighting Lunceford’s contributions to Memphis and the music that inspired other jazz greats, such as Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
“After this week people probably will have heard more about Jimmie Lunceford than any time in the last 20 years, or even before then,” Herd told the group prior to the concert. “For a black man who had done so much, he deserves the honor.”
Since Herd had captured the attention of his audience – at times while punctuating his monologue with stinging rebuke – he encouraged those not already onboard to help bring Lunceford’s legacy back to life.
 “He was the epitome of greatness,” said Herd, chief executive artivist of The W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group Inc., a nonprofit organization. “He was the real king of swing – not Benny Goodman. Glenn Miller said it best: ‘Jimmie Lunceford has the best of all bands. Duke [Ellington] is great, [Count] Basie is remarkable, but Lunceford tops them both.’”
The “artivist” was candid during his presentation of Lunceford and his exploits in music. “He was the number one band of choice for African Americans in the county. They called him the Harlem Express,” he said.
“Everybody wanted to be Jimmie Lunceford because he had this distinctive two-beat sound. Normally the other bands [during that era] had a four-beat sound,” said Herd, noting that Stax Records, Hi Records, and even Three-Six Mafia had emulated Lunceford’s two-beat rhythm.
A student of history, Herd compiles data and information and stores them in his memory bank. When the need arises, he retrieves them at a moment’s notice to express a point or to educate those who may be barren of facts.
Like, for example, James Melvin Lunceford (his name at birth) was born July 6, 1902, on a farm near Fulton, Miss., and learned to play several instruments as a child. He matriculated at Fisk University in Nashville and arrived in Memphis in 1927.
An accomplished musician by then, Lunceford took the job of athletic director at Manassas High School, where he organized a student band called The Chickasaw Syncopators. He later changed the name to The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.
The Orchestra soon rose to fame playing venues like The Apollo Theater in New York and The Cotton Club in Harlem, also in New York. He also toured extensively in Europe. But Lunceford was more than the music that he loved and shared with the world.
“He saw music as a rite of passage for young black boys and girls [to become] men and women,” said Herd. “He took the time to invest in people.”
Education and cultural awareness are essential to understanding Lunceford and the “excellence” of African Americans pursuing their dreams, he said.
“You must know where you come from and who your people are,” said Herd.
A brass note was dedicated to Lunceford on Beale Street in 2009.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Dr. William Pepper Explores the Plot to Kill Dr. King

Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Loraine Motel, James Earl Ray is still – and forever will be – inextricably linked to the civil rights leader.
That fact cannot be disputed. What is often disputed is whether Ray, described as a two-bit petty criminal with a hankering for money, acted alone or was merely the patsy that a well-heeled apparatus employed to divert attention from the real assassin.
Ray did not kill Dr. King, according to Dr. William F. Pepper, who offered his perspective and keen insight on the role Ray played leading up to the assassination and afterward during a book talk at the National Civil Rights Museum on Nov. 2.
Dr. William F. Pepper
Drawing his conclusion from countless interviews, court documents, sworn depositions, and other painstaking research material, Pepper compiled what he’d learned into his latest book, “The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Questions still abound, however. Was Ray indeed the patsy rather than the assassin whose aim was spot on? And was Ray telling the truth when he implicated the mysterious “Raoul” in the murder of Dr. King?
Ray pleaded guilty to Dr. King’s murder to avoid a jury trial and possibly the death penalty, if he had been convicted. Three years later he recanted his confession and aroused suspicion when he fingered Raoul.
The book talk wasn’t centered precisely on Ray, but around a chain of events that conspiracy theorists and the inquisitive alike have long chewed on and regurgitated over and over since that fateful day on April 4, 1968.
“The Plot to Kill King” is Pepper’s third and final book in the trilogy surrounding Dr. King’s assassination and the trail of evidence leading to government culpability, including a plot, Pepper maintains, with far-reaching tentacles across the United States.
“What I’m trying to do in the final book is to now put the full context of all the critical depositions we took in the appendix of the book so nobody can say Pepper is making this up.”
“A volume of new people had evidence and wanted to relay it before they died,” added Pepper, detailing, for example, in book two – “Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” – that new evidence confirmed Ray’s innocence.
“‘Orders to Kill’ laid out the evidence at that time,” said Pepper, a New York-based attorney also working from London. He represented Ray and fought valiantly to get him a trial that he’d never had.
“The case took on a whole new perspective,” he said.
Pepper’s first book, “An Act of State: The Execution of Dr. Martin Luther King,” was the end product of an exhaustive investigation that Pepper began in 1978, 10 years after the martyrdom of Dr. King.
He surmised it was Frank Liberto, a Memphis grocer with supposed Mafia connections, who admitted on TV that he’d killed Dr. King during the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations.
In his quest to find the elusive truth, Pepper has tarried over the years with laser-focus determination to bring the murder conspiracy to its final conclusion by uncovering the real culprits behind this inglorious chapter in American history.
The bullet that killed Dr. King was fired by a civilian, claimed Pepper, who’d befriended the civil rights leader in 1967 and represented the King family in a wrongful death lawsuit following the death of Ray in 1998.
The King family was convinced that Ray did not kill Dr. King after his son, Dexter King, had interviewed him. They weren’t buying the lone gunman theory and that Ray was the mastermind.
It was Pepper’s revelation of Dr. King’s admittance to St. Joseph Hospital that likely drew some attention – even disbelief that a nonviolent crusader of international repute would be whisked on a gurney to the emergency room.
“Dr. King was not dead when they took him to St. Joseph,” Pepper shared with the audience. “Martin was alive in the emergency room on a gurney.”
Pepper said Lula Mae Shelby, a surgical assistant at the hospital, maintained that Dr. King was alert in the operating room when a team of surgeons began working to save his life.
He said according to Shelby’s testimony, Dr. Breen Bland, the hospital’s chief of surgery, forbade the team to “stop working on the nigger and let him die.” Then he ordered them out of the operating room.
“The witness said Dr. Bland put a pillow over Dr. King’s head and suffocated him. I believe that’s how he died,” Pepper said.
There was a Q&A session following the book talk. After drawing to a close, an unsuspecting man on a cane was determined to have his say.
“You remember me, John Billings?” the man asked Pepper. “I do respect your education and your perseverance – because we know each other quite well – to find out the true killer of Martin Luther King.”
Pepper acknowledged knowing Billings, who worked with him in 1990 to investigate the death Dr. King, and again in 1993 for the televised mock trial to determine Ray’s guilt or innocence.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” said Billings, a 20-year-old college student and emergency room orderly in 1968 who was asked to guard Dr. King’s body.
“What you’ve said is full of crap,” he shouted at Pepper. “I was there (at the hospital). He’s going on hearsay.”
While being escorted from the auditorium by Memphis police, he exhorted the audience to Google “John Billings, Private Investigator.”
“Find out for your own self,” he said.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Thirteen-year-old lands record deal after winning talent contest

Devin Michael McCracklin has talent. That much is a given after the 13-year-old singer, actor, songwriter and talk show host placed first in a talent contest in Atlanta and a recording contract with Zarah Records, an independent label founded by Dr. Zakiyyah Raheem.
“I’m very excited,” said Devin, who counts as his influence Michael Jackson, James Brown, Bruno Mars, and Nathan Davis Jr., a 23-year-old standout who was once raised in Memphis and now living in California.
“He’s iconic,” Devin said of Davis.
Devin bagged the record deal in August after winning Atlanta’s “You Got Talent” contest that radio personality Porsche Foxx of Old School 87.7 radio station in Atlanta had been announcing.
Devin Michael McCracklin – or Devin MC – is releasing
the single "Lavender Girl" on his debut album,
"Devin's World." (Courtesy photo)
It was just by happenstance that the commercial would catch the attention of Devin’s parents, Constance and Sylvester McCracklin, who were headed to dinner that day with two of their five sons and daughter-in-law.
“We were there in Atlanta, not for anything regarding the entertainment industry,” said Constance McCracklin. “We were there for my husband’s job; he had to take some tests for his job.”
The McCracklins were planning on moving the family to Atlanta anyway, Constance said. Devin’s winning performance and subsequent recording contract no doubt solidified their plans, which made the move to Atlanta worth the effort and expense.
Testing for a job just happened to turn into good fortune for the family. “We happened to be in the car and did not have the radio on at all for two days,” Constance said. “We happened to turn the radio on this particular day.”
Old School 87.7 was pumping up the music over the airwaves; and that same commercial, voiced over by Foxx, played in rotation, without fail.
“They kept talking about this Atlanta Got Talent contest,” Constance remembers. “We heard it about 30 times in the car traveling.”
So did Devin, who was seated quietly and listening intently. Meanwhile, Constance, thinking it might be an opportunity to take the boys to the contest out of curiosity, nudged her husband for his approval.
“He said, ‘Naw! I got to be at the orientation at 8 o’clock in the morning. It’s just gonna be too much.’”
Newly-signed recording artist Devin Michael McCracklin
has an affinity with the microphone. (Photo by Sylvester
McCracklin Jr., CEO of H2D Entertainment)
After finishing up dinner at the Golden Corral restaurant, the McCracklins jumped back into the car and were off again. And again, Foxx was on the radio encouraging her listening audience to tryout for the talent contest at the 656 Sports Bar & Grill.
“So Devin put the puppy dog face on his dad,” said Constance, and added that her husband yielded to Devin’s forlorn expression, which registered his eagerness to tryout for the talent contest.
The month-long contest was a synch for Devin. He won the first round on Monday, Aug. 7. And each Monday thereafter he breezed through the competition. On Monday, Aug. 28, the last round, the singing sensation was crowned the winner in the “Pop” category.
The McCracklins couldn’t contain their joy. Devin had proven his worth as a budding young artist – so did his 26-year-old brother, Sylvester McCracklin III, who won third place in the “Hip-Hop” category. He goes by the name Sly Guy, his stage persona. Tonyaa Staples, another Memphian, won second place in the “Neo-Soul” category.
Sly Guy and Staples weren’t signed to the record label. If Devin’s career takes off, Constance said Sly Guy could be signed next. Meanwhile, Devin is releasing his debut album, “Devin’s World.” His first single is “Lavender Girl.”
Dr. Raheem, also the president and CEO of the recently founded label, penned the lyrics. She is referred to as “Dr. Hit Maker” in the industry. The song was mixed and produced by Kutt The Check, and recorded and engineered by Scott T. Robertson at STR Recording Studios.
Devin added lyrics to two songs on the album: “Billionaire,” a calm approach suggesting the upscale lifestyle, and “Superman,” a character study undergirded with a hook, the songwriter said.
“My favorite songs are mostly fast songs because they energize me and I can do a lot more dancing,” said Devin, explaining his style of music. “I can really make it my own. Slow songs…I can make it my own with riffs and runs.”
Devin is the youngest of the McCracklin’s five children. He has an affinity with the microphone. His parents are the founders of H2D Entertainment, whose slogan is “Bringing Hollywood to Memphis.”
“I would always get mad when my dad would take the microphone away from me,” said Devin, who started singing at the age of six and emulating the artists he admires the most.
Last year he studied at Stax Music Academy. He also traveled as a lead singer with the Youth Performing Arts Company of Memphis, including leading roles in stage productions and short films produced by H2D Entertainment.
Devin prays too; it’s a ritual for the church-going family. “Without God, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “I keep God first and stay humble.”
He is scheduled to go on tour next year. His mother, who is teaching Devin the pros and cons in the music industry, is managing his career. She is in lockstep with him each day.

(For more information about Devin Michael McCracklin or his music, call Constance McCracklin at 901-691-9856)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

New book provides answers to questions about God

Katrina Chalmers (seated), who self-published a new book under the name K.D.
Poston, signs copies during a book signing at Faith Temple Ministries Church of
God in Christ. Her sister, Linda Seymour, provided assistance. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
What Katrina Chalmers was able to glean from her extensive research into God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit should elicit a welcoming response from the inquisitive soul yearning for knowledge and truth.
Chalmers does not claim to be a preacher. An exegetist? Perhaps. Most assuredly she’s a student of the gospel who understands, for example, 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV): “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Her research into the origins of God, His wonders untold in the earth and in the heavens, angels, Lucifer, and Christendom were derived from various sources including [but not limited to] the Bible.
The noteworthy material that Chalmers was able to unearth since 2013, when she first started researching, should not muddle the layman’s thoughts about God, nor be misconstrued as undecipherable highbrow mumbo jumbo.
Instead, it was Chalmers’ intent all alone to take her painstaking research and publish the material in its simplest form in a book aptly entitled “Could It Be…? The Answers to Questions of all Ages” Volume 1. In its complete form, the book is a must-read, scholarly compilation that evokes thought and piques one’s curiosity.
“My goal [in writing the book] was to simplify it so the whole world could understand,” said Chalmers, who self-published the book this year under the name K. D. Poston to attract a wider audience in addition to the male variety that may frown upon a female author with command of the English language and her research material.
“This was an assignment from God,” said Chalmers, which was fitting that Faith Temple Ministries Church of God in Christ, a family church she once attended in the Whitehaven community, would host a book signing on Sept. 10.
“I grew up in the church,” she said. “I was indoctrinated in Christianity…and truly see it as a blessing. Having the knowledge of God and the experience helped me to avoid the many pitfalls.”
The pitfalls were likely avoided – most of them, she might admit – because the matriarch of the family no doubt impressed upon Chalmers and her six siblings to rightly divide the word of truth and not to be ashamed.
“Since I’m rooted in Christianity, I wanted to show the book didn’t contradict the Bible,” she said. To avoid contradiction, she fact-checked her notes and research material with the Bible and then fact-checked everything again.
Chalmers drew inspiration from a body of work called “The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus,” which “reveals the great mystery of God and the Godhead!” she writes in the book.
After discovering this jewel of rare historic information, her immediate response was “Wow!” With her Bible in hand, she said, “As Scripture was coming to me, I would read it again and again until it all made sense.”
She just wants it all to make sense to her readers – page after page, topic after topic, chapter after chapter, such as “Who is God?”; “God in Three Personalities”; “A Trinity Within 5 Trinity”; “Creation of Mankind”; and other chapters the author deems noteworthy.
“He revealed to me that knowledge will only come when we seek it and have the capability to do something with it,” she writes. “Knowledge is power.”
This book assignment is complete with Chalmers’ approval. “I considered this my personal assignment and my individual purpose,” she said.
Now Chalmers – or rather K. D. Poston, the name she has chosen to use henceforth in upcoming Christian literature – is on the move. A first-time published author, she has in the can outlines for at least five more books.
“My next book will be volume two,” she said.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Memphis compensates sanitation workers in advance of the 50th anniversary

The city of Memphis is offering $50,000 in grants to 14 sanitation workers from 1968.
Baxter Leach, now retired, said he could use the money. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
When Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced in early July that the city would offer $50,000 in tax free grants to the 14 surviving 1968 sanitation strikers, a wave of excitement washed over Baxter Leach.
“I feel great about it,” said Leach, who never imagined that he would be compensated nearly 50 years after the sanitation workers opted to participate in Social Security rather than a pension plan offered by the city at that time.
“We’re proposing a new retirement plan, an additional retirement plan for all sanitation employees,” said Strickland, making his remarks at the National Civil Rights Museum, site of the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Standing before the 7,000-pound bronze sculpture “Movement to Overcome,” Strickland and other city officials expressed the need to remedy the decades-long pension debacle that did not give sanitation workers anything to look forward to after retirement other than Social Security.  
Whatever it took for the city to arrive at its decision, “the money comes in handy,” said Leach, 77, who retired in 2005 and receives a small Social Security check each month after working 43 years in the Public Works Department.
Nine other sanitation workers from the 1960s have retired as well and getting by on Social Security. Four others, including 85-year-old Elmore Nickleberry, are still on the city’s payroll trying to keep up their standard of living.
The money, Nickleberry noted in The New York Times, “will really help me retire.”
 “Obviously we can’t undo everything,” said Robert Knecht, the public works director. “As Chief [Operating Officer Doug] McGowen said, ‘It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.’”
The city is drawing down $700,000 from its general fund reserves to pay the striking sanitation workers and added an additional $210,000 to cover the taxes on the grants. First Tennessee Bank and the nonprofit Operation HOPE, which offers free financial literacy workshops and one-on-one financial counseling, will administer the grants.
Leach is expecting a payday soon. He’s unsure how much of the money will be allotted at a time, but he’s certain that the money will be put to good use. “I show can use the money,” he said.
The money can’t come too soon for Leach, who eked out a living day and night to take care of his wife and six children. He worked odd jobs during the day and hauled garbage at night.
“I was hustling,” he said. “I did some of everything to make a dollar. I hauled junk. I painted houses and worked at a mechanic shop while working my routes at night throughout the city.”
Recalling the hard knock job of hauling filthy garbage, Leach said, “It was hard back in those days. We didn’t have anywhere we could go to the bathroom and nowhere to wash our hands when we got through eating.”
Leach recalls having nowhere to shower either after liquid stench would dribble from the metal tubs they had to lug to the garbage truck. “We would wear the same clothes back home,” he added.
The announcement serves as a prelude to the 50th anniversary of the sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. King, who rallied the sanitation workers and encouraged them to stick together to achieve their goal: a fair wage, recognition of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and better safety standards.
 It was the horrible crushing deaths of garbage collectors Echol Cole and Robert Walker that led to the sanitation workers strike and Dr. King’s visit to Memphis. Thirteen hundred black men went on strike carrying placards with the slogan “I Am A Man.”
The sanitation workers who participated in the strike fought long and hard to initiate change. Choosing to forego the pension, they were not able to retire in relative comfort. Many of them kept working.
“I got tired of working. I’ve been working since I was 9 years old in Mississippi,” said Leach, spending his leisure with family. Most times he’s sitting around at the restaurant they own, Ms. Girlee’s Soul Food Restaurant.

SCLC convenes its 59th Convention in Memphis

Dr. Charles Steele Jr. is taking the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
to new heights beyond the apex of its glory days. (Photo from the SCLC website)
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference survived decades of internal discord and instability after its founding in 1957, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., SCLC’s first president, began leading the organization through the tumultuous civil rights movement.
Dr. Charles Steele Jr., SCLC’s current president and CEO, is leading the organization through global discord and instability, and evokes the organization’s creed to “Redeem the Soul of America.”
Steele will be in Memphis July 20-23 when SCLC convenes its 59th convention at the historic Peabody Hotel. The theme: “The Hour is Now to: Believe, Empower, Act.” The issues: poverty, injustice, economic inequality, police brutality, and others.
Steele is the first non-clergyman to lead SCLC, an interfaith organization committed to peace, unity and non-violence. Since its founding 59 years ago, he said, “We’re in worse shape than we were.” Black success today, he added, is cosmetic at best. “We attained it, but we didn’t maintain it,”
There have been highs and lows over the course of SCLC’s existence. The organization, however, is still relevant, said Steele, recalling a conversation he once had with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union before its collapse.
“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Steele, have we fulfilled the dream? Is the dream complete?’ I told the president, ‘Mr. Gorbachev…no…we’re not halfway there.’”
Gorbachev’s sentiments were embodied in the hopes and aspirations of African Americans past and present who’re still searching for the elusive dream. Steele said other world leaders likewise understand the black experience and the travails of black life in America.
On Sept. 13, 1964, Dr. King delivered a heartfelt speech in East Berlin at Sophienkirche (Sophia Church). Gorbachev was listening intently, Steele said. “He wasn’t in the audience; he was eavesdropping.”
Steele has traveled all over the world. He’s visited five continents and countless countries, including Moscow, Russia; Berlin, Germany; Jerusalem, Israel; Rome, Italy; and many countries in Africa.
He’s motivated by the support that SCLC has received from many world leaders. “People say to me, who’re receiving us, ‘Don’t give up on SCLC, because if you stop, you stop the flow of freedom throughout the world.’”
Steele has taken SCLC to new heights. In 2006, he raised $3.3 million (and more than $10 million altogether in first five years at the helm) to build an international headquarters for SCLC in Atlanta.
The slogan, “New Day…New Way,” signified that a change had come.
“I can’t run SCLC the way we ran it in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “I have to have God to give me the anointing, vision and enough sense to understand that I got to have good people who will never be seen supporting me resourcefully….”
Steele is focused on economic development – which, like the black man’s quest for freedom, has eluded the black community, the charismatic leader said. “We’ve gone backwards due to the fact that we have not embraced the economic development aspect in our community.”
He predicts, for example, a sobering decline in black banks and financial institutions within the next 15 to 20 years. “Something is wrong with that,” said Steele, adding that the problem is systemic.
“In the last 8 to 9 years, we have lost 52 to 53 percent of our black wealth. It will take two generations for us to get it back,” Steele said. He pointed out that 52 to 53 percent of homes in the black community were lost through Wall Street and the banking industry.
Black wealth, Steele said, is evaporating and cannot be solidified with government oversight. “The government is the enemy,” he said, borrowing the line from Dr. King. “The government is not going to do anything to free you.”
It wouldn’t matter who is president, Steele said. “I don’t care if we have a black president, brown president, Caucasian, Hispanic, politics can’t free us. We’re in a system.”
He said it also wouldn’t matter the political party. “I’m not Republican or Democrat. I’m Baptist. I do ‘Thus said the Lord.’ That’s what sustains us. That’s where we are. That’s where we’re gonna be… and we’ll be here forever.”