MLK50: Breaking the cycle of poverty in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took an assassin's bullet fighting for the rights of sanitation workers in Memphis and poor people around the world.

But given where we are today, some have questioned whether he died in vain.

"You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor," Dr. King said. He also called for America to "use her vast resources" of wealth to end poverty.

Despite that demand, and all the time that has passed, some experts say Memphis remains stuck, a city and a people trapped in poverty.

29-year-old Tamika Johnson grew up in South Memphis.

Born to a mother that battled addiction, she and her siblings were split up at an early age and sent to live with family members.

Johnson dropped out of school in the 10th grade after having her first child, but immediately began working to earn a living.

"So I just had to get up and do it. Everything I know now, I had to learn on my own," she said.

In more ways than one, she's literally a survivor.

Johnson showed us a bullet doctors removed in 2017. She was shot in 2011 while sleeping in her bed with her infant daughter, caught in the crossfire of a nearby robbery.

"It was a hard thing to do, because I had to make it from my room to the front door," she said crying.

Years later, Johnson's wounds have healed, but the scars are harder to get rid of. She moved out the now closed Tulane Apartments, hoping to ensure her family's safety.

However, in the process, she lost the security of having a roof over her head, and a vicious cycle was repeating itself.

"We stayed in hotels for months. It was uncomfortable for my children to have to see and go through that," Johnson said.

Johnson now has her own place, thanks to a program called Family Promise. It's not all furnished yet, but it's hers.

"It was like a little struggle, but they say you have to go through something to have a better outcome," she said.

Each day Johnson takes her kids to school, then leaves her North Memphis home for her job at a discount store in Hickory Hill.

She makes $7.50 an hour. With rent at $650 a month, she tries to get as much overtime as possible.

Johnson may not have much, but she is determined to provide for her kids.

"Even though you make minimum wage, you can work yourself from the bottom and come up to the top.

But what if statistics show that even when you try, for some, that glass ceiling is nearly impossible to break.

Dr. King said eradicating poverty would take billions of dollars and decades of commitment.

However, in the very community where Dr. King gave his last speech, six out of 10 Memphians live in poverty.

Dr. Elena Delavega is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Memphis and author of 'The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK.'

Despite gains in education and employment, the poverty rate for African-Americans in Shelby County is three times higher than whites.

Roughly half of all black children are living in poverty, four times the number of white children, and the median income for African-Americans is just over $35,000 compared to nearly $70,000 for whites.

Meaning, today, like in 1968, African-Americans in Shelby County are still earning half of their white counterparts.

"What we have here is a resistant problem of inequality and unfairness," Dr. Delavega said.

Delavega has conducted additional research showing higher median incomes and lower poverty rates in northern cities with similar demographics, causing her to believe the real reason...lies in black in white.

"There are a lot of things that lead me to believe that there`s racial discrimination here at work," she said.

According to Dr. Delavega, it could all change.

"Poverty is manufactured. What we choose to pay somebody and how we choose to value somebody's labor is something that we can control," she said.

Historically, the Memphis economy was built on the backs of black workers.

Consultant Tom Jones says our leaders have made choices that kept our community, and many of its people, in the same position.

"It's always been about cheap labor and cheap land," Tom Jones, with Smart City Consulting, said.

According to Jones, the power to create prosperity for all will take some re-imagination, but if we do, the possibilities are endless.

"We were willing to spend a lot of money to chase Amazon. What if we took the approach that we can create that sort of economic impact by growing our own workforce, improving our own workforce and  improving incomes?" Jones asked.

Improvements that would mean 50 years from now, the numbers will tell a different story about Memphis and about families like Johnson's that are hoping to break the cycle for generations to come.

"If I had the chance or opportunity I would want to go and get a better, higher paying job. I want to finish school, and I just want to make sure my kids are happy," Johnson said.