MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The mayor is responding to backlash he heard at the “I Am Memphis” commemoration this weekend.
It came from one of the city’s own guest speakers, CNN Commentator Angela Rye.
The goal was to honor the sanitation workers, but the city says Rye went off topic as she gave reasons why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t be proud of how Memphis operates today.
We’re told she was brought in because she’s young and the city felt she could attract millennials to this event and inspire them to help out with the community and government.
Rye set a tone early for her speech at the event.
“My standing here means you’re not afraid of progress,” she said. “Either that or you didn’t do your research.”
Rye then criticized components of the City of Memphis.
She touched on the high rates of black child poverty and disconnected youth here.
Rye made comments about the justice system in regards to a heavy focus on policing, harsh prison sentences and the high number of incarcerated African Americans.
She also mentioned the ACLU lawsuit against the city for having a list of people who needed escorts in City Hall.
“Are you proud of this Memphis?” asked Rye. “This Memphis that sounds entirely too familiar to the Memphis that rejected Dr. King in 1968. Are you proud of this Memphis?”
Mayor Jim Strickland said he’d never heard of Rye before the event and still hasn’t spoken to her.
He said he agrees there’s a need to tackle poverty and the crime rate. He also admitted the City Hall escort list was a mistake.
However, he said much of the content in her speech wasn’t true, like her saying Memphis police use ‘stop and frisk.’
He also highlighted the remarks about Memphis not making progress in the past half century.
“I think those kind of statements undercut her credibility on her other pronouncements,” said Strickland.
He posted a response to Rye’s speech on his campaign Facebook page, where some complained their comments were deleted and said they were being censored.
Strickland said someone else monitors that page and he stands by their choice to delete them since it’s not a government page.
“That’s a private account and like any private citizen, the operator of that can delete anything they want,” he said.
A non-disclosure form prevents the city from telling us how much Rye was paid to speak, but the entire event’s operating budget was $200,000.
“We certainly wish she had not phrased her sentiments in that way and it was unprofessional and quite frankly, classless,” said Ursula Madden, communications director.
Rye said she’s donating $10,000 of what the city paid her to Black Lives Matter and the C3 Land Cooperative.
“She wants to know whether or not you’re going to match her donations she brought up on stage. What do you want to say to that?” WREG’s Bridget Chapman asked Mayor Strickland.
“That’s funny,” he answered. “That’s really funny. She needs to catch up to me.”
Mayor Strickland then spoke about his 30 years of volunteering and donating money in Memphis.
When asked if he thought Dr. King would be proud of Memphis, Strickland said he thinks he’d be proud of the people here but added:
“He’d be like us, disappointed at some of the results we’re getting, frustrated [and] saddened by the level of violent crime that’s plaguing so many of our neighborhoods; the fact poverty is so high.”
The city says a committee for MLK50 events chose the speakers for ‘I Am Memphis’ and they’ll now be changing how they vet them going forward.