In April 1968, Jesse Jackson was in Memphis organizing an economic boycott to mirror his Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. He was back in Memphis on May 9, 2017, urging that the city award more contracts to minority-owned businesses or, he said, he would return to the city in April 2018 to lead a protest march.
That would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination, in Memphis, of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the spring of 1968 King had mobilized Jackson and the rest of the top staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to hurry to Memphis. They had only a few days to organize a peaceful march to redeem his reputation as a nonviolent leader. That reputation was then in tatters because a march that he had kicked off in Memphis on March 28, 1968, had turned into a riot of looting and vandalism.
King authorized Jackson’s economic boycott to bring pressure against Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb to settle a garbage workers’ strike then under way. There would be an appeal to strike supporters not to buy the products from corporations, such as Coca-Cola or Wonder Bread, in the kind of markets where blacks had consumer power. Jackson was also calling on white-owned businesses to hire more black employees. The boycott was derailed by King’s assassination.
Now Jackson is demanding that Mayor Jim Strickland expand the number of contracts that the City of Memphis awards to minority-owned companies. Jackson wants Strickland to raise the proportion of such contracts from the current 13 percent to 50 percent. He has set a deadline: either Strickland devised a plan within thirty days for hitting the 50-percent target by April 2018 or Jackson will begin organizing the protest march. Strickland is vowing to work toward that goal, but achieving it in less than a year is a daunting task.
The racial balance of power differs markedly between 1968 and now, at least politically. Mayor Loeb was white, as in Strickland. But now more than three-fifths of the Memphis population is black, compared to 40 percent in 1968. Starting in 1992, the city had a 24-year streak of African-Americans in the mayor’s office. Strickland broke the streak in October 2015 because he was the only white among four major candidates. Now, too, African-Americans account for seven of the thirteen seats on the City Council. There were three black city councilors in 1968.
If Strickland seeks re-election in 2019, he may very well not have the racial odds stacked so much in his favor. That electoral deadline, more than Jackson’s, may have him scrambling to increase the number of contracts going to black-owned businesses.