US: Memphis '68, Revisited

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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."

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

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."

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.

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?

Si Kahn is Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership. He is the co-author with Elizabeth Minnich of The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy, which will be published this fall by Berrett-Koehler.

Information on how you can support the Shelby County struggle is available at

AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 187 Privatization

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