Rev. Jesse Jackson praises Memphis progress on awarding contracts to African Americans

But city officials, CME leaders say there's still more work to do.

Lee Eric Smith | 8/15/2017, 1:45 p.m.
But city officials, CME leaders say there's still more work to do.
Rev. Jesse Jackson addresses media after meeting with CME leaders and City of Memphis officials, including Joann Massey, Director of the Office of Business Diversity Compliance (right). Photo by Tyrone P. Easley

Earlier this year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson vowed to lead a march in Memphis if the city didn’t sufficiently close the gap in how it awards contracts to African American vendors and businesses.

Well, the city has closed the gap — some. And at a press conference late Monday afternoon, Jackson said that the march can wait.

“That option is always on the table, but it’s not the priority,” said Jackson, flanked by CME church leaders and a delegation from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s office. “The priority is inclusion.

“There’s nothing the city needs that the people who live here can’t provide," Jackson said. "For the most part, Memphis people should (win) Memphis contracts. Shelby county people should (win) Shelby County contracts. There are signs of progress, and there are areas that require more work.”

So what does progress look like?

Joann Massey, director of the City of Memphis' Office of Business Diversity Compliance, said that Memphis has seen a 69 percent improvement in its MWBE (minority and women business enterprises) spend from the start of Strickland’s term in January 2016 through April 30, 2017. That translates to just over 21 percent of all contractors, and of that 21 percent, 11 percent were African-American-owned businesses, she said.

Massey said the city’s progress so far is the culmination of several initiatives, including technical assistance for smaller businesses, a microloan program and reciprocal MWBE certification with Shelby County. Massey also cited a city ordinance that enables smaller firms to form joint ventures as they pursue contracts that otherwise might be too big for them.

“It’s been on the books for a number of years, but it hasn’t really been used,” she said. “So now we’re really focused on encouraging joint ventures — bringing small businesses together to help them bid on the larger projects together, where they may not have known about each other or maybe didn’t know they could bid together.”

In his remarks, Jackson repeatedly said that certain types of African-American-owned businesses in Memphis are obvious candidates for these contracts — law firms, marketing companies and professional services, as well as custodial and construction companies.

“Whether it’s professional services or common work, we want the city’s numbers to look more like its population,” he said. “I think the impact of our presence has been felt. We want to make certain that people feel progress is being made.”

Other participants in Monday’s meeting included CME Bishop Henry M. Williamson Sr. and Memphis Rainbow PUSH Coalition president Joseph Kyles. Jackson started the day by keynoting a CME breakfast meeting at the CME National Headquarters on Elvis Presley Boulevard. He also attended and made remarks at several events over the weekend.

Williamson and Jackson also announced an upcoming summit involving leaders from Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. No date has been set for the summit, which will tackle some of the area’s more pervasive problems – poverty, jobs and education.

And while Strickland didn’t attend Monday’s meeting because of a scheduling conflict, he did send his top lieutenants. Massey was joined by City Attorney Bruce McMullen, Community Affairs head Ken Moody and Chief Communications Officer Ursula Madden. Madden emphasized the Mayor’s commitment to a more diverse slate of contractors.

“We increased our numbers in 18 months. But we’re not satisfied with those numbers. The mayor is not satisfied with those numbers,” Madden said. “So we will continue to push to build our MWBE spend.”