Memphis '68, Revisited

Just for a moment, imagine that you are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You get a call from Memphis, Tenn. Over a thousand public employees, doing difficult, sometimes dangerous work, are at risk of losing their jobs.

These workers are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The local leadership and most of the members are African Americans. The union offers them a chance for a decent life for themselves and their families.

But the white elected officials who have power over the lives of more than a thousand workers have other ideas. They want these employees to do their jobs for even less than they're making now. And they don't want an African American-led, African American-majority union to have the have the right to negotiate the wages, benefits and working conditions of public employees.

What are you going to do?

If you've studied the history of the southern Civil Rights Movement, you probably assume we're describing the 1968 sanitation workers' strike. It's a familiar history. Dr. King goes to Memphis to march with the sanitation workers. On the night of April 3, he speaks at Mason Temple and says, "Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants."

The next morning, standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King is assassinated.

But this is 2005. At issue is the creation of the largest for-profit private prison in the United States.

The seven white Republicans on the racially-divided Shelby County Commission, who hold a one-vote majority over the six African-American Democrats, are trying to privatize and expand the Shelby County Jail and the Shelby County Correctional Center, popularly known as the "penal farm."

The county commission originally received bids from three companies, including Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the world's largest for-profit private prison corporation. One of the other companies, Correctional Services Corporation, dropped out. To sweeten its bid, CCA has offered to make a $30 million up-front cash payment to Shelby County.

It's no wonder CCA needed a sweetener. In the past year alone, there were riots at three of CCA's facilities in Mississippi, Colorado and Oklahoma. A woman prisoner at the CCA-managed Metro Detention Center in Nashville was beaten to death.

According to a 2003 report by Grassroots Leadership, CCA "has been buffeted by numerous lawsuits and scandals involving allegations of failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners; failure to control violence in its prisons; substandard conditions that have resulted in prisoner protests and uprisings; criminal activity on the part of some CCA employees, including the sale of illegal drugs to prisoners; and escapes, which in the case of at least two facilities include inadvertent releases of prisoners who were supposed to remain in custody."

Given these incidents and many others in Tennessee and elsewhere, CCA knows it's facing a hard sell. But the corporation has some unusual allies.

One is Thurgood Marshall, Jr., son of the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice, architect of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that undid legal segregation. The younger Marshall, a member of the Corrections Corporation of America board of directors, was in Memphis recently to promote private prisons.

Another is Benjamin L. Hooks, board chair of Mississippi-based MINACT, Inc., which operates Job Corps centers across the country. According to CCA, if they are awarded a contract to privatize the two facilities, MINACT will provide academic and vocational programs. Hooks, president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, served for over 20 years as the executive director of the NAACP and is the former chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

You have to wonder what Dr. King would think.

All this is bad news for everyone except the private prison corporations, their directors, shareholders and contractors, who stand to profit handsomely from the proposed enterprise. It's particularly bad news for the 4,600 people currently imprisoned at the county jail and farm. People incarcerated in private prisons have experienced a long history of violence and abuse.

It's bad news for the families and communities of people who work in the two facilities. Some 1,500 public employees, members of AFSCME Local 1733 -- the same union that Dr. King marched with in 1968 -- are at risk of losing their jobs.

Most of the workers are African Americans. Some of them were there in 1968.

"One of the reasons people are concerned about the proposed privatization of the county jail and penal farm is that not just jobs but lives hang in the balance," says Reverend Tonyia Rawls of Grassroots Leadership. "These private prison corporations come in and offer cost savings or jobs or a better-run facility. Yet we've seen situation after situation where those have been false promises.

"Beyond that, the very nature of the business is a moral disconnect. The end goal is profit, not public safety, rehabilitation, or the wellbeing of families and communities. The stockholders are the only ones the corporation is beholden to."

"When private prison corporations come in, salaries and benefits go down," adds Grassroots Leadership organizer Gail Tyree, who coordinates the local community-labor coalition that is fighting against the proposed private jail. "But that won't just affect the people who work in the jail and their families. The community suffers as well.

"People need to be accountable for their actions," said Tyree, who has a son in prison. "But, when they return to our communities, we want them rehabilitated so that they can make a living wage and give back to the community."

Just as in 1968, the Shelby County struggle is beginning to draw national interest. "This fight in Memphis has gained national attention from student and community activists because the proposed facility would be the largest private prison in the country," says Bob Libal, co-coordinator of Not With Our Money, a national student organization concerned with prison and criminal justice issues. "That would represent a huge setback in the fight to make our criminal justice system humane and accountable."

The faith community is increasing its on-the-record opposition to prison privatization. The General Convention of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. passed a resolution calling for the abolition of all for-profit private prisons, jails and detention centers. According to the resolution, "The question of whether human beings should be incarcerated, of how they should be treated while in prison, of when they will be released, can not be answered by whether or not these steps will create profit for a corporation."

Closer to home, Shelby County community and faith leaders are supporting both the prisoners and the many public employees who work at the two facilities. Over 400 have signed onto a "Standing Together For Justice" statement that asks the county to keep the facilities public, stating that the proposed privatization, "is a moral evil that involves the raffling off of the public trust, establishing profit for the company shareholders as the bottom line, and relegating public safety and rehabilitation of prisoners as lesser considerations."

Students at the county's colleges, universities and divinity school have held teach-ins and signed petitions opposing privatization. A Faith Forum held in one of Memphis' largest downtown white churches drew a large crowd, including AFSCME International Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, who spoke about the dangers of private prisons.

The faith forum took place on April 3, the day before the anniversary of Dr. King's assassination.

Now it's 2005. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the phone with Memphis, Tenn. How little has changed in 37 years. Who can the union call? Who will come down and march by their side?


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