Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 53 on Jan. 15, 1982. It was a Friday and on that day the founders of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center (MSPJC) opened its doors.
This Saturday, a gala event at First Congregational Church in the Cooper-Younger community will mark the organization's 32nd anniversary.
"'Living the Legacy of Nonviolence' is our celebration of resistance," said Jacob Flowers, MSPJC executive director. "We stand on the shoulders of great men and women that we honor and appreciate. The broad canon of work we've accomplished is because of the lessons we learned from those who went before us: nonviolent social change is permanent change."
The after-five banquet will feature a keynote address by former MSPJC Executive Director Hubert Van Tol, now the economic director of Pathstone's Enterprise Center, a small business assistance center and advocate of economic justice in Rochester, N.Y.
The first difficult days
Memphis was the city where the gaping wound of Dr. King's assassination was inflicted on April 4, 1968, said Brad Watkins, MSPJC's organizing director.
"There was this sense that this city had to be an example to all other cities and aggressively pursue racial equality and justice for everyone," said Watkins. "Not just to honor Dr. King, but to remember all of the nameless people who suffered and sacrificed so much for the movement."
The doors of the MSPJC were opened so that there could be a place where those most affected by social issues would have a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation about how to solve the social issues of the day, said Watkins.
"Certainly, racial justice was essential, but our focused evolved as people were disenfranchised by so many other injustices."
Moving forward, Watkins envisions MSPJC as an incubator for training and developing grassroots leadership and a resource of support where strategy and consultation can be accessed by those leaders.
"We're very excited about the work ahead. HOPE (Homeless Organization for Power and Equality) members are working on a community garden in the Crosstown area. The produce will be used to feed homeless families.
"We're working with Juvenile Court to get young people involved in planting community gardens in their own neighborhoods. It will change perceptions about how neighbors see them and how they relate to those residents. So many great initiatives are coming down the pike. We are very excited about the gala this Saturday. But Monday morning, we've got to get back to work."
About the speaker...
Hubert Van Tol led the Peace and Justice Center from 1985 to 1995. Much of that decade was spent fighting against "redlining" and ensuring that the Community Investment Act was being enforced.
"North and South Memphis communities were being redlined by banks, and they weren't lending money in those areas," said Van Tol.
"We fought to eliminate discrimination in banking and real estate practices, which was so prevalent at that time. I guess that was the bulk of our work when I was director."
Van Tol grew up on a farm in an "all-white" town.
"I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and I guess you could say my contact with other races was negligible," said Van Tol. "When Dr. King was killed, I was a senior in high school. That Sunday following his assassination, our minister delivered a message praising Dr. King's work for racial equality. I remember after service how enraged many of those people were, telling our minister that they did not appreciate hearing a message about 'that communist.'"
Van Tol never forgot that message nor the angry response. Off on his own at college, racial unrest and protests against the Vietnam War awakened a social consciousness that started him on a path of activism and advocacy. He returns Saturday to Memphis with a message of encouragement.
"I don't consider myself a great speaker, and I don't want this built up into some great message I'm going to deliver on Saturday. I'm going to tell stories, stories about how important social justice is," he said.
"Hopefully, those involved will be encouraged to continue the work, and those who are not involved will be inspired to jump in and get involved. Memphis will always be special to me, and I'm thrilled to return for this gala."
(Tickets can be purchased online at www.midsouthpeace.org, by phone at 901-725-4990, or in person at the offices of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, 1000 S. Cooper St.)