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"Come, you who are blessed by my father, take your inheritance. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Mathew 25: 34, 35, 36, 40

Iturn 60 this week, and I was eight years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. I lived on North Reese between Poplar and Walnut Grove. I remember the fear that came into our house that day. We lived two blocks from East High School, and the protests had reached the neighborhoods just north of East High School. Dr. King had come to Memphis to fight for the equal treatment of the African American sanitation workers. The Sanitation Workers’ Strike had started on February 12th after two black sanitation workers had been killed by taking cover from the cold and rain in the back of a garbage truck, because they were not allowed in the building like their white counterparts.

The Sanitation Workers’ Strike made living in the city unbearable - as the weeks went by, the trash piled up. I remember how difficult it was to do my chores - which involved taking the trash out - but now there was no place to put the garbage, and it piled up in the front curb. This was before the widespread use of plastic garbage bags, and in fact this was one of the many issues that the sanitation workers were striking over. Garbage at that time was placed outside your home loosely in metal garbage cans. The sanitation workers would dump the trash into their tubs and then carry the tubs to the truck with wet, open garbage often spilling over the top or seeping out of the rusted bottoms of the tubs onto the workers. The Sanitation Workers’ Strike now made this problem a problem for everybody living in Memphis.

The death of Dr. King resulted in Buford Ellington, then the Governor of Tennessee, calling out the National Guard to aid the City of Memphis Police Department, which was trying to restore order to a city overcome with grief, anger, and fear. The National Guard had troop transport trucks parked at the end of Reese at Walnut Grove. Their presence gave this eight-year-old a sense of comfort as well as confusion: what could have happened in my city that would require the army to be positioned at the end of my street? It was clearly a coming of age moment for me, as the innocence of my childhood was shattered to the realities of a broken world.

The Protestant Work Ethic teaches that just as priesthood (or “calling” from God) was essential to a healthy society governed by God’s law, that all work was a vocation or calling from God essential to the well-being and growth of a community. I have jokingly asked for years, “would you rather live in a city without brain surgeons or a city without garbage collectors and police officers.” The Protestant Work Ethic requires us to appreciate the calling of “less skilled jobs” just as much as we appreciate the “most skilled jobs.” In fact, it is the work of the “less skilled”, essential workers that allows the work of the “most skilled” to exist.

Dr. King came to Memphis to support the essential sanitation workers, whose job was clearly what most would consider less than desirable, but, if honest, one of the most essential jobs for a city to be habitable. The night before the march in Memphis, Dr. King preached his last sermon, "I've Been to the Mountaintop." Dr. King preached as if he knew that he was about to give his life for the Civil Rights Movement.

In the body of his sermon, he preached from the 10th chapter of Luke, The Parable of the Good Samaritan: “The Priest and Levy asked, ‘If I stop and help this man what will happen to me?’ The Good Samaritan asked himself, ‘If I do not stop and help this man, what will happen to this man.’ That's the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That's the question. Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

Dr. King finished his sermon with words that clearly foreshadowed his future: “Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life--longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so, I am happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The words of Dr. King meant little to me as an eight-year-old boy; all I knew was that my world had been turned upside down. It wasn’t the words of assurance from my father that made me feel safe, but the presence of the Memphis Police Department and the National Guard at the end of my street. The 2020 Memphis Police Department is much different than the Police Department that made me feel safe at age eight. In 1968, much of the Police Department would have been guilty of enforcing the segregation policies of the South. Today, just like the City of Memphis, the majority of the police officers are African American and trying to secure the safety of all of Memphis’s citizens. Like all organizations, the Memphis Police Department is imperfect. But just as Dr. King spoke of seeing a day that the racial divide would be healed on the eve of his death, the citizens of Memphis need to continue to work towards realizing Dr. King’s dream. The Memphis Police Department, for its part, must work tirelessly to rebuild the trust and confidence of the communities that they are sworn to protect and serve, and to hold officers accountable for misconduct. And they must do so not only when bad acts are captured on video; they must be willing to look within themselves, to pull back the “Blue Curtain,” and weed out problematic behavior before another tragedy ensues. They must be willing to punish, and not incentivize, bad policing. And they must be as transparent as possible without compromising their work.

I serve on the Board of The Memphis/Shelby County Law Enforcement Foundation; our most visible work is the Blue Light Project that funds the cameras that feed into the Real Time Crime Center. These cameras are the eyes of the Memphis Police Department, recording crime wherever they are placed throughout the city. But their presence alone is not enough to reduce crime; without the men and women of the Memphis Police Department who are willing to risk their lives to act on the crimes being recorded, the cameras usefulness beyond deterrence by their mere presence is minimal. Police officers get very little credit for the work they do for us, but, as is the case with our sanitation workers, we don’t want to live in Memphis if they are not there to do their job.

As a lifelong Memphian, I have been proud of Memphians’ responses to the current crisis in public policing. Young people have gathered to peacefully protest their outrage over the murder of George Floyd. I can only pray that his death will force all of us to evaluate our hearts, admitting that we are all guilty at times of evaluating others on their economic position or the color of their skin. In that evaluation, we hopefully have a better understanding of who Christ was calling us to consider “the least of these”.

Who are “the least of these?” The answer will be different for each of us. The “least of these” are the ones who God puts in front of us with needs that we have the ability to meet. We lift each other up as we are given the opportunity to serve our fellow Memphians in need. Paraphrasing Dr. King, “If I do not stop to help those in need, what will happen to them?”

Jim Walker
Seek the Peace and Prosperity of Memphis

I have to thank the widow of D’Army Bailey, Adrienne Bailey and their son, Justin Bailey, for their contribution to this “Uplifting Memphis issue”. Adrienne for the past ten years has always been willing to help this 60 year old white publisher to understand the African American viewpoints as we try to move Memphis forward in realizing Dr. King’s vision of the “Promised Land” for the people of the city where he gave his life.
Dr. King’s Mountain Top address can be found here

Listen to it here

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