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From Memphis to Ferguson: Devin James – The whole story

by Tony Jones

Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Memphis-born public relations professional Devin James has steadied himself after getting wobbled as part of a public relations team assisting the city of Ferguson, Mo. with its public response following the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Michael Brown Jr.

James and his company, the Devin James Group, were working out of the spotlight until a St. Louis newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, detailed James’ reckless homicide conviction resulting from a shooting in 2004. He served three months in prison and 10 years probation.

 The newspaper followed up with a scathing editorial, presaging an Internet and media explosion excoriating James. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was well aware of James’ past. He told St. Louis’ KMOV Channel 4 that he felt it would provide an additional connection “to counter criticism that city officials are out of touch with people who may have a criminal record but are trying to turn their lives around.

“My background was never an issue to anybody. It has no reflection on my ability to do public relations or be a strategic counsel for government entities,” James said during an interview with The New Tri-State Defender.

James was hired as a minority subcontractor by the St. Louis-based communications firm Elasticity, which was contracted by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. Katy Jamboretz, vice president, Marketing & Communications, for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, says the organization has asked Elasticity to release James from his subcontractor role, due to a lack of transparency.

“While we admire his personal growth from difficult circumstances and commend him for his high quality work in Ferguson, it was the lack of information about his background that prompted us to make this move,” Jamboretz said in a written release. “Mr. James failed to inform us of his prior conviction. He also did not reveal this information to Elasticity when he was hired as a subcontractor. As of today, we are developing new vendor due diligence policies which we believe will prevent similar incidents in the future.”

James said his company has always been forthright with all of its government clients.

“We told the partnership (when his firm was initially hired). We told the partnership and they thought it was a good idea when they recommended that we work with Ferguson. So every headline that you’ve read has been inaccurate.”

James has at least one public official, Tennessee State Rep. Barbara Cooper, strongly on his side. James’ family turned to Cooper for assistance after his conviction and subsequent prison term.

“What happened to Devin was ten years ago, if not longer. And I know because I helped him through it,” said Cooper. “What they’re trying to do to him is so unfair and typical, though it really comes as no surprise. Why don’t they tell the truth for a change? Yes, he was a felon; was. Look what he has become since. That’s the real story.”

A July 2014 article in the St. Louis American speaks to what James has become, reporting that he was class president of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Minority Business Executive Program.

Let him speak for himself.

“My firm was under contract with the St. Louis Economic Partnership for a brand assessment of North County, where Ferguson is located. About two days after we completed the assessment, Michael Brown was shot and killed and the Partnership decided that they needed to do something to protect the investments in the region,” said James.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, we were not actually tasked to do PR (public relations). Our initial assignment was to assist the P.R. firm retained, Common Ground public relations.”

Putting the Ferguson area into context, James said, “It wasn’t a secret that the area lacked the investment that the non-African American areas had received. The highest ranking executive in the county is African American and has acknowledged that they had not done a good job in investing in the African American community.”

His core duty began as part of the team seeking ways to spur more economic investment in the African-American community. That involved discussion about topics that are issues in many other cities: How to challenge patterns of poverty and determining corporate responsibility.

 “Like any other typical American city,” said James, including Memphis in the mix. “I have been doing business there (in Ferguson) for six years and never got a prime contract.”

Then the shooting occurred.

 “The first thing that jumped out to me was that there was so much division between the city, the state and the county. When something large like this happens in a small town like Ferguson they’re not equipped to handle something like this,” said James.

 “My first concern was where were the resources to help them. The police chief immediately called the county in take over the investigation. The first couple of days it was amazing to me how little support they received. To me it was almost like they had left them out to burn. I think a lack of leadership from the state to the county level added to the confusion. It was chaotic. We’re talking three or four days after the shooting and there was no clear plan.”

James said it is not his intention to criticize the initial PR firm that was hired.

“I just think something like this was outside their wheelhouse. The cultural sensitivity piece was missing. Nobody had really dealt with any kind of race related, international conversations. Of course in Memphis we’ve dealt with that kind of conversation for years so I understood what kind of conversations that needed to be had. As I was engaging the stakeholders I was concerned that no one understood the severity of the situation.”

By email, James detailed his responsibility following the shooting.

  • Written by Special to the New Tri-State Defender by Tony Jones
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Democrats wage internal battle on Shelby County Commission


by Tony Jones

Special to The New Tri-State Defender

Newly elected Shelby County Commission Chairman Justin Ford (District 9) faces a potentially bare-knuckled debate over the makeup of subcommittees when the Commission meets on Monday (Oct. 13th).

Two weeks ago, after a unanimous 11-0 initial vote during the nomination process, Ford presented his nominees to the Commission for final approval. But then, much to his surprise and many others, a 7-5 vote forced the process back to the drawing board.

Commissioner Walter Bailey (District 13) orchestrated the baffling move. He requested that the two resolutions forming the nominee slate be moved from the “consent” agenda, where items considered a done deal are parked, to the regular agenda to allow a full vote.

With a deliberateness that reflected prior conversation, the six Democrats (not counting Ford) on the commission then nixed Ford’s subcommittee selections. Their surprising move took on decision-making weight when Republican commissioner Steve Basar (District 13) sided with them. Basar’s fellow GOP member George Chism (District 2) was not in attendance.

Bailey says he persuaded his fellow Democrats that Ford’s subcommittee selections were not strong enough for the greater good that he said the Democrats represent.

 “There are seven of us that represent the urban community, all Democrats. Seven votes are required to get resolutions passed,” Bailey told The New Tri-State Defender.

“We (Democrats) feel we have a golden opportunity to control committees like Budget, Education, Law Enforcement, which have authority over the courts and Juvenile Court; critical committees that shape the direction, destiny and priorities for this county and the committee chairperson usually is the one who gives a committee the impetus to move forward. We need it to be individuals that can be consistent with our priorities.”

Bailey said Ford cut a deal with the Republicans to become chairman.

“They preferred him because I was up for chairmanship, but it was not something that I really coveted. They preferred him because they feel they can manipulate him.”

Ford said Bailey’s move was out of bounds.

“Traditionally, the chairman of the body is nominated by your peers and you are elected by your peers. As the chairman of the body I have to take a neutral position on most issues, and I have to chair the meetings, run the office and preside over the meetings for the people of Shelby County from that perspective.”

Not only are his appointments sound, Ford counters, there’s no way he would turn his back on his roots.

“I’m African American, and the chairman. I am the youngest chairman in state history and the youngest chairman to sit on any major government body in this country. I think it does a lot for African Americans, and especially young African Americans,” he said.

“I have also been appointed to the board of the National Organization of Black County Officials while I was at the Congressional Black Caucus. So when we discuss the issues that are important to this community I think I am on the forefront, I think I am part of what is needed to bring solutions for the communities that I represent.

“My district includes Whitehaven, Boxtown, Mitchell Road, the Florida street area. There’s no way I’m not going to watch out for the interests of my voters.”

As chairman, he works for the entire county, said Ford.

“We can do more on the commission now than we have ever been able to do. I think we can do more than we ever did before because we have a commission that can work together. We can transcend racial lines and we can move forward for the people of Shelby County,” said Ford.

“We went on a three week tour of Shelby County … we went to Germantown, Collierville, Millington, Memphis, Arlington. What we are trying to do now is have a respectful, honorable government, a government for the people by the people that will be problem-solvers not problem-causers.”

But, said Bailey, if the Democrats can unify, there will be several key issues where Ford, as chairman, may become the deciding vote.

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Sweetie Pie’s‘Ms. Robbie’ delivers the personal touch

by Brittney Gathen

Special to The New Tri-State Defender

St. Louis soul food restaurant owner Robbie “Ms. Robbie” Montgomery is seeking Memphians’ support for her latest business venture – a Beale Street location for her St. Louis-based Sweetie Pie’s restaurant.

Montgomery brought her palpable energy to Beale Street recently (Sept. 25th) as she checked on the progress of the Sweetie Pie’s set to open soon at 349 Beale St. It was clear that she is excited about joining the Memphis community via her their restaurant.

“It’s an honor to be in Memphis on Beale Street,” Montgomery said. “I’m meeting a lot of challenges. I’ve got a lot of restaurants here I’ve got to compete with, but I’m hoping my food is just as good.”

For Montgomery, opening and operating the new restaurant is going to be a true family affair that will require the support of the Memphis community.

“This is a family operation, and we can’t do it without each other. It takes all of us to make this work, and (it’s going to take) the city of Memphis,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery decided to open up a Memphis location after being offered the opportunity to move to Beale Street.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to bring my food down here. When I come to Memphis, I always enjoy it, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” she said.

Montgomery said her son, Tim Norman, would be very active in overseeing the restaurant’s new location.

 “Tim will be 200 percent involved because he’s going to move down here,” said Montgomery. “I’m just going to come and make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”

Montgomery said her sisters would also come down to check on the establishment.

The former “Ikette”(a backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner) and star of the Oprah Winfrey Network reality series “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” learned how to cook her mother’s classic soul food dishes by working alongside her in their St. Louis kitchen. After a lung condition ended her singing career in 1979, she returned to St. Louis from California and worked as a dialysis technician. She would soon trade a health care career for a career in the culinary field. In 1996, with help from her son, Sweetie Pie’s was born.

Montgomery is pleased with the reaction she’s already getting from the Memphis community.

“I want to thank Memphis for opening their arms to me,” she told The New Tri-State Defender during an impromptu interview on Beale Street.

“It seems like everybody’s waiting on me, and I can hardly wait to get here. So, stay hungry and wait on me!”

Authors –and their works – speak to ASALH mission


Toussaint Louverture, Nathaniel Turner, Sengbe Pieh, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman are familiar iconic symbols of heroism whose struggle in the United States, Africa and the Caribbean helped to change the status quo of their day: racism and slavery.

Celeste-Marie Bernier, the Dorothy K. Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History at the University of Memphis, traces the lives and histories of these six men and women in her book, “Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination.”

  • Written by Wiley Henry
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What’s up with Memphis youth?


Another weekend with a frightfully dangerous incident powered by unruly youths has area residents amping up the call for a crackdown on the perpetrators of such law-breaking behavior.

A 46-year-old mother and her 9-year-old daughter were swept up in an eruption of out-of-control youths following a football game at Central High School last Friday night (Sept. 26th). Sharon Mourning and her daughter were trapped in their car as dozens of youths jumped on, kicked and stomped the vehicle.

  • Written by Tony Jones
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Freedom Award honorees – a trio of barrier breakers who advanced freedom


“Breaking Barriers, Advancing Freedom” will be the theme that links Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Robert (Bob) Parris Moses and Frank E. Robinson on Dec. 2nd and forever link them to Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum.

With Beverly Robertson, the museum’s high-energy (and retiring) president doing the honor, the three were announced as the 2014 Freedom Award honorees on Tuesday. This year’s presentation will be Dec. 2nd at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, with the traditional Gala Dinner later at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

Are ‘dysfunctional relationships media invention or state of crisis?


There are a plethora of books, online sources and more seeking to provide relationship insight and assistance. Pennsylvania certified psychologist, school principal and author Dr. Umar Johnson made an effort to be another resource last week (Sept. 18th).

The University of Memphis chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists and the Student Event Allocation Committee sponsored an event titled “Dysfunctional Relationships: Media Invention or State of Crisis.” Johnson spoke on the topic, “Black Male-Female Relationships: The Clash of Pain Bodies,” discussing such subtopics as reasons for failure.

From homelessness to leadership: “People’s mayor’ to share her story

Peoples Mayor

Dr. Evelyn Wynn-Dixon will make her first trip to Memphis this week to share her story of persevering through poverty and homelessness to become the mayor of Riverdale, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

She will serve as the keynote speaker at The RISE Foundation’s second annual gala, An Evening of Change, which be held Saturday (Sept. 27th) beginning at 7 p.m. at the Hilton Memphis.