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Political activists converge on Memphis seeking a different shade of ‘red’

by Jeshua Schuster

Television on-air commentary pundits like sports commentators often simplify politics into two opposing teams, like the LA Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, or in the political sense Red states vs. Blue states. While few would argue that by most accounts Tennessee is a "Red state," others who want a different type of red state here in the Mid-South are making it known that the volunteer state and the south has a rich radical tradition of its own.

The National Organizing Conference of the Socialist Party U.S.A. will take place in Memphis on Saturday and Sunday (July 28-29) at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center at 485 Beale St. Socialist activists of all stripes from across the country will come together to network, hold workshops and share advice on how to continue the work for positive social change in our city, our country and our world.

Conventional wisdom would suspect that such a gathering would be held in traditional bastions of radical thought on the east and west coasts. That same conventional wisdom also supposes that the south is a conservative and evangelical block and a waste of time for those seeking Democratic Socialism. Party members locally and nationally say that is exactly the reason why they are coming here.

"The South is ground-zero. We have the highest concentrations of poverty, private prisons, unemployment and 'food deserts' – largely vestiges of a culture and economy based on slavery," said Bennett Foster, co-chair of the Memphis Socialist Party. "As Memphians we are tired of being of at top of to many of the wrong lists. We want to continue the Memphis radical tradition of being a catalyzing force behind social movements. "

That history includes Memphis' rich and tragic legacy in the civil rights movement, including the pivotal 1968 sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elmore Nickleberry and Coby Smith, two veteran activists from that time, will each be on hand as plenary speakers at the conference (Saturday, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.).

Nickleberry is a sanitation worker who participated in the historic 1968 strike and at the age of 85 still works for the same department today. Nickleberry, who appeared in the documentary "I Am a Man: From Memphis, A Lesson In Life," is a charter member of AFSCME Local 1733. Sadly, last year the Memphis City Council and Mayor AC Wharton Jr. moved to cut pay and benefits and paved a way to managed competition – a road toward to privatization. This would erase many of the gains made by labor in Memphis during the civil rights movement.

Smith is a familiar name among community organizers and activists in Memphis. He helped to form the Black Organizing Project – The Invaders, a militant black power group active before and after King's assassination here in Memphis. They were entrenched within the black community, providing security escorts for sanitation workers fearing police harassment while leaving work. They also worked to feed poor school children while the National Guard rolled in with tanks, placing the city under martial law. Smith and the Invaders were prime targets of the military and the FBI's COINTELPRO because they were fighting for autonomy and equality for black people.

The event will also include an exclusive first look at a feature-length documentary "The Invaders," with producer J.B. Horrell. The film traces the history of this often misrepresented black power group, bringing its relevance to present day struggles in Memphis. This can be seen today as MPD's Blue Crush and other "data-based" policing strategies operate in a manner of an occupation force in low-income communities of color. These communities, some of the poorest in the nation, are also the targets of relentless efforts of racist gentrification, predatory lending and lingering and designed inequality in public education.

In contrast to the two major parties, each holding a posh and gala nominating convention, the Socialist Party U.S.A National Organizing Conference 2012 is focused on organizing, more specifically organizing in the South. The conference will host workshops on different facets of organizing, including Immigration Policy in the South, How to Organize a Local, GIS Mapping for Organizers, Memphis Art Brigade, and many many more.

Register at http://socialistorganizing.org/registration.html.

(Jeshua Schuster is a Memphis resident and member of the Memphis Socialist Party.)

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