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"A Painful but Necessary Revisiting,"

by Steve Cohen March/April 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

We asked newly elected Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen, a member of the 70-strong Congressional Progressive Caucus, to comment on Prof. Honey’s history.

Reading about the abysmal working conditions of the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, as described by Michael Honey in Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, is a visceral experience. As a native Memphian who has a deep and abiding love for his city, I find it painful but necessary to revisit the scars of Memphis from time to time. Michael Honey’s words paint a picture both poetic and horrific of a time when African Americans were denied some of the most basic of human rights in our country.

The issues of poverty and race are inextricably woven together in our nation’s history. Slavery and Jim Crow laws affect our lives to this day, in terms of wealth, ownership and access. Most recently, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, played out on television, forced a re-examination of the ideal of America as a land of prosperity and equality. Such issues are faced every day in cities such as New Orleans and Memphis; such issues must be faced by every American if we are to become the great nation we aspire to be.

Michael Honey vividly describes a world of haves and have-nots, a world where the unnecessary deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, ignited a firestorm. The resultant sanitation workers’ strike drew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis to support the workers and to focus national attention on their plight. Dr. King’s death on a small balcony of the Lorraine Motel focused the tear-filled eyes of the world on our troubled city on the banks of the Mississippi.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. has shaped the perception of Memphis, both internally and externally. Those of us who recall Memphis before April 4, 1968 also know how far Memphis and the United States have moved toward Dr. King’s dream. African Americans have opportunities not available in 1968 as doctors, lawyers, educators, government officials. Dr. King’s dream is alive, progress has been made, and progress will continue if we are vigilant and persistent.

As I write this, a young African-American man enters my Washington, D.C. office to empty the day’s trash, and I think again of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. It is important that we never forget them, but the best tribute to the tragedy of their lives is to focus on their present-day counterparts. We cannot change the past but the future is ours to decide.

Rep. Cohen is reachable via his Legislative Director/Press Secretary Marilyn Dillihay—

Steve Cohen , a fourth generation Memphian, served 24 years in the Tennessee State Senate prior to his election last November.

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