SURJE: Our Time is Now – A Commentary by Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith

Memphis and Atlanta will always have a psychic connection due to the history and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Before the motel, the shooting, the riots and the mourning, there was the Memphis
sanitation workers’ strike.

In April 1968, Dr. King pivoted his work on the Poor People’s Campaign to travel from Atlanta to Memphis, Tennessee and help energize the strikers — his last cause for economic justice. The work of organizing sanitation workers in the 1960s is emblematic of the work we are doing today at the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity. It is with this framing that the PSE has chosen to host our inaugural racial equity summit, the Southern Unity for Racial Justice and Equity (SURJE) Summit this coming October 5-7 in Memphis.

We wanted to bring an authentic experience and amplify local community partners to the forefront of SURJE. Organizations like the Big We, the Memphis Music Initiative, BLDG Memphis and others are all
members of our host and planning committee. They have served as our thought partners and trusted advisors as we seek to leverage this opportunity to catalyze a movement for racial equity and justice.
Memphis has one of the most robust and organized community development ecosystems in the South and we wanted to use SURJE as an opportunity to showcase this amazing work.

As a multi-issue organization, we understand the various intersection points within racial equity work. We understand how climate and environmental justice issues impact health outcomes for Black and disinvested communities of color—and how the built environment and economic opportunities accrue to communities that are racially homogeneous. We also realize how the voices of young people are silenced when deciding who deserves to live in a safe and prosperous community and we are hoping to not only illuminate these issues but mobilize to address them.

At PSE, we believe that both place and people matter. Long before the events surrounding the Tennessee 3 and Tyre Nichols, we were intentional about choosing Memphis as a place in the American South that was ripe for not only a national conversation about racial equity, but also a way to build community power to heal and repair. The Bluff City on the Mississippi, Memphis is special, with its intersection of people, identities, and ideas. It is a cultural and logistical hub for over 600,000 residents. We saw this beautiful city the perfect canvas and opportunity to amplify the voices and work of the frontline leaders who help make this city a jewel within the American South.

Set against the backdrop of a culturally rich and soulful city, SURJE will bring us together as a call-to-action for the mobilization of a just equity ecosystem and unite in the spirit of restoration, exploring Memphis and its offerings. We believe that at this time in our country’s history, Memphis provides the perfect social and geographical context for both a timely conversation and a call to action to mobilize our partners, allies, and friends around racial equity. The time is now for us to push back against systems of injustice and organize our people, money and information in a way that equips communities to determine their own future and build power.

We believe that SURJE is perfectly timed because Memphis citizens will be heading to the polls on October 5th to elect a new Mayor. For the first time in 51 years, non-incumbents are on the ballot for this hotly contested seat. Leading a predominately Black city in conservative states are realities that many southern Mayors face across the American South. We see this as a unique opportunity to lend support and voices from other Southern Mayors to glean best and next practices for leading with love, empathy, and equity. What does it mean to advance racial equity in a Black city when systemic racism is ingrained in the fabric of America’s DNA? This is one of the many questions we hope to explore during SURJE.

It was not by happenstance that Dr. King went to Memphis. We know that he was both anointed and appointed by the Creator when he made his journey to Memphis in April of 1968. It is almost like he looked into the future and saw the struggle that many of us are still fighting today. We proudly stand on his legacy and other civil rights giants as we try to move the needle for racial equity in Memphis and beyond. We hope that you meet us in Memphis to join the SURJE and the fight. We invite you to join us to begin the process of building the future we want together and creating a movement to spark national change that is anchored in the South. Join us to begin the process of growing a future we want together by organizing a “values revolution” in America, anchored by the history and culture of the Southern Freedom Movement. Our time is now.

Nathaniel Smith is the founder and Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity.