While the long buildup to Saturday's Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Memphis has helped the event draw national attention, public and political watchers here say the KKK's impending visit has served to bring many people closer together to focus on issues with long-term impact.
Planned to protest the renaming of several parks honoring Confederate war history, the rally by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is set for 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on March 30 on the steps of the courthouse at 140 Adams.
"I'm asking Memphians to just ignore them physically, but it's been beneficial to remind us to forever be aware of the evil within the hearts of too many people in this country; whether it's racism, sexism or any type of bigotry that rears its ugly head," said Wharton.
The same applies to the issue of renaming the parks, the mayor said.
"A lot of people are upset at what we're going through, but in a way it's a healthy thing because the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance. If you don't recognize the threat, you can't guard against the evil."
SCLC President Dwight Montgomery agrees in principle, noting that the organization's monthly agenda is aimed at enforcing the legacy of its founder, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by reaching out to all sectors of society to bring forth issues of concern.
Among the guests this week at a SCLC luncheon were the Rev. Keith Norman, Memphis Branch NAACP president, and Lee Millar, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Both are opposed to renaming the formally Confederate-themed parks.
Millar has sought to distinguish his group from the KKK.
"We don't believe in anything they stand for and we're together on that and wish the Klan wouldn't come to Memphis," Millar recently told a local television station.
On Monday, Montgomery spent an hour on a morning talk show on WLOK (1340 AM).
"(People) expressed that while they detest the KKK, there are more important things at stake than worrying about them and those parks," Montgomery said. "But what people tell me as SCLC President, my colleagues on the Baptist Ministerial Association and Operation PUSH, we need to focus on making thorough changes that help and benefit African Americans and everyone in this city."
Issues of concern that are resonating with people, said Montgomery, are "the pay cuts suffered by city employees; how contractors have messed up people's home through the HARP Program, which is supposed to help the poor renovate their houses, and nothing has been done about it; and how 1,000 African Americans will be losing their jobs because the merged school system will be privatizing custodial services."
Montgomery contrasted the planned KKK march with an SCLC roundtable discussion to be held March 28. It will feature leaders from the Jewish and Latino communities, as well as Millar from the Sons of the Confederacy.
"At all of our activities to honor Dr. King, we (SCLC) support all voices that want to make a positive change," Montgomery said. "This issue (KKK visit) has given many people more focus."
State Rep. Barbara Cooper (District 86) is among those who assert that nowhere is such a focus more needed than in the Tennessee General Assembly. Cooper and colleagues in the Tennessee Black Caucus have warned for months that the Republican Party's overwhelming vote advantage in the Tennessee General Assembly may lead to the pushing through of legislation intentionally harmful to African-American interests and the poor in Memphis. And this despite opposition from more moderate voices, including Gov. Bill Haslam in some instances.
The cited examples include Senate Bill 132. Sponsored by Republican Sen. Stacy Campfield, the proposed legislation would cut welfare benefits to parents whose children fail to make satisfactory academic progress in school.
Campfield has said that he designed the legislation with the idea of getting parents to become more concerned and involved with their children's education.
That recently drew this response from state Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis): "How does Sen. Campfield expect a child to do his homework when there is no food on the dinner table?"
CORR march set for Friday, March 29
On Friday (March 29), the Commission on Religion and Racism (CORR) plans a protest march to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue and "end the symbol of Memphis being a city sanctioning and embracing racism."
The March will proceed from Memphis City Hall to the Bedford Forrest statue on Union, where CORR will ask Mayor AC Wharton Jr. and the City Council to renounce Bedford Forrest as the "image and symbol of racism representing the mentality of Memphis leadership; and vote to remove the statue and rename the park."
Klan rally option: 'People's Conference'
On Saturday (March 30) at the Memphis Fairgrounds from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the HEART OF THE CITY will host a free event that will have music, dance, food and culture and a focus on building a long-term movement that "opposes racism and discrimination of any kind in our city on March 30 and everyday thereafter.
The pivotal section of the event is the first annual MEMPHIS UNITED: People's Conference on Race and Equality.
For more information, contact Brad Watkins, organizing director at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, at 901-725-4990, office; 901-495-0818, cell.