MEMPHIS, TN – During the height of the civil rights era, there was a clear line of individuals who became the faces of the movement. They were the leaders and everyone seemed to unite behind them.
But how has that changed in 50 years? Is there the same clarity?
If what was old is new again, then recent protests, sit-ins and rallies in Memphis are no surprise.
A new group of leaders picking up issues that seem to have been dormant instead of overcome.
Police shootings, racial profiling and poverty all came to a head on a hot summer day on a bridge in Memphis.
“Just tired of the way things were for so many of us. I think that was just the sentiment that led people to the bridge. They were tired, They were fed up and they just didn’t know what to do. This was a thing that they could do,” says Shahidah Jones, who one of the bridge protesters.
Jones was among thousands of young protesters who shut down the I-40 bridge in July 2016.
“The bridge was just stopped. There was this energy. There was this triumph that people were excited they were able to control just one small piece of something,” says Jones.
Close to 50 years earlier, civil rights pioneers shutdown another bridge, the Edmund Pettus in Selma, Alabama demanding equality and change.
It became bloody Sunday as protesters were attacked.
Among them was Civil Rights legend John Lewis.
“The time is always right to do right,” Congressman Lewis told WREG recently. “Stand up, speak up and never give up. ”
Congressman Lewis recently led a pilgrimage across several states to commemorate that time.
WREG asked him about the new generation of protesters still pushing for change.
“We must be hopeful, optimistic and never lose that sense of hope. I think the young people , the children are gonna help us get there,” said Lewis.
One thing that stands out about then and now is factions of leadership. When the bridge protest was over that summer, it had brought forth several people claiming leadership roles. It became confusing. Who was the face of the movement?
The Monday after the protest, a meeting to talk issues turned into chaos.
Everyone wanting to speak and not everyone on the same page.
Shahidah Jones says while that meeting was uncontrollable, the different voices speaking out for different issues was quite reminiscence of the 60s.
“It was 15 different group. They argued. They fought about whether or not they should be talking about the 2 dollar minimum wage or if this was not the right time. There was always multiple groups going. So you had Martin Luther King. Before MLK, you had Malcom X, before that you had Stokley Carmichael, you had SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee),” says Jones.
Black Lives Matter Memphis then took to Graceland protesting economic injustice.
“We wanted to point out the huge injustice of investing so much money into Graceland while communities in our city remain divested from. Schools in our community are closing. many people cannot find housing,” says Erica Perry with Black Lives Matter Memphis.
During the Civil Rights Movement it was lunch counter sit-ins and business boycotts.
Elaine Turner was among the students demanding change then.
“Those wheels were turning very slowly in the court. So when the students decided they were gonna step out and take matters into their own hands, that’s when they decided we are gonna do something,” says Turner
Libraries were finally integrated after Turner, her family and young people led library sit-ins and went to jail.
Today, youth are speaking out just as loud about injustices they see.
“When these young people see others in their own age being mistreated being beaten and yes even being shot down, they are saying that’s enough. We are human beings, we need to be respected. Our lives do matter,” says Turner.
But like in the 1960s, sometime it`s not just demonstrating, but speaking loudly and not letting up that finally brings change.
“We haven’t gotten there yet and we have a lot more to do,” says Tami Sawyer. She became the face of that late last year, when after relentless pushing to remove Confederate Statues in Memphis, she finally saw them come down.
“I don’t believe that it was an agenda item for 2017. So I believe our push and just bringing along a lot of people in the community in that push and lot of folks saying now is the time definitely made it happen in the time line that it happened,” says Sawyer.
Sawyer says Take em Down 901 was finishing the work.
“We are picking up the torch continuing the next leg of the race. So when I look at LaSimba Gray and Commissioner Bailey, I look at them as the ones we took the baton from in the race,” says Sawyer.
“In 1968, we were focused on getting fair wage for the sanitation workers, which would eventually impact everybody in Memphis. But we didn’t think about in 1968 the power of these monuments. :54 But they have tremendous power. They are a constant reminder of Negro stay in your place,” says Rev. LaSimba Gray.
Rev. Gray was one of those who led the fight years later in 2005, pushing for Memphis to take down the Confederate monuments, taking a stand and taking all that came with it.
“Our homes had to be guarded all night by local law enforcement,” said Gray. “The Klan came from all over the Midsouth to prevent us or to intimidate us from even talking about those statues and the removal thereof. ”
He says young leaders, who are not willing to back down pushed opened the doors he and others had cracked.
“Ms. Sawyer is to be commended for keeping that fight alive. Mayor Strickland is commended for making it happen,” says Gray.