Public Defender Helps Reframe Memphis History

From riot to massacre: Shelby County assistant public defender leads effort to give truth to tribute

Phyllis and memorial.
Shelby Co. Ass’t Public Defender Phyllis Aluko at unveiling of the Memphis Massacre marker.

When Phyllis Aluko read Professor Stephen Ash’s latest book, “A Massacre in Memphis: The race riot that shook the nation one year after the civil war” she wondered why she hadn’t heard about it before.

Then, she wondered about other things — such as why it was not acknowledged with a historical marker, like so many other critical moments in Memphis’ past.

She also wondered why it was called a “race riot”  — a term used historically and still today as code for protests started by African Americans that erupt in violence.

What happened during that horrific three day period in 1866 was the murder of 46 black men, women and children, the beating or rape of many others and the burning of black churches, schools and homes — an unconscionable 36-hour killing spree carried out by white mobs.

Aluko, a supervising attorney and member of the appellate team with the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender, decided to do something — about all of it.  As a board member of the Memphis NAACP, she worked tirelessly with other community organizations and the National Park Service to establish a historical marker with language that reflected the truth of that fateful day.

A dedication ceremony was held at the National Civil Rights Museum and the marker was unveiled at the Army-Navy Park at Second Ave. and Patterson St. near the museum.

You can read more about the marker and the Memphis Massacre here:

Do the Words ‘Race Riot’ Belong on a Historic Marker in Memphis? via NPR

Marker Finally Honors Truth, Victims of Memphis Massacre via The Commercial Appeal

Historian: It Was Both a ‘Riot’ and a ‘Massacre’ via The Commercial Appeal

 

 

7 Numbers That Made Memphis Better in 2014

SeeJustice FlagWe hear a lot about injustice today in the form of continuing racial tensions, worsening economic inequality and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. At the start of 2014, these discussions were largely limited to non-profit, government and community organizations who work with those affected, and among those facing these challenges in poor and mostly minority communities.

But by the end of 2014, discussions and debates about injustice are no longer pushed to the margins — this issue is now part of our social media feeds, news stories, community meetings, and family get togethers.  We may not agree on solutions or causes, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to say we live in a country that gives everyone a fair shake.

As a tumultuous year comes to a close — we take note of a few things in Memphis that give us hope. Take a quick look, by the numbers, at efforts in our city that remind us:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

PLACEHOLDER PLACEHOLDER

Screenshot 2014-12-23 10.42.19FRESH STARTS. 

Each day, thousands of Memphians are trying to get a job or a professional license — but can’t.  One major obstacle is a criminal record, which is often a major barrier to employment long after the sentence has expired. Tennessee has narrow expungement laws that can help, but even in the few instances in which someone qualifies, applying for an expungement can require legal guidance, paperwork and hundreds of dollars in filing fees.  In 2014, the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office assisted with paperwork and paid filing fees for 15 people seeking expungement or citizenship right’s restoration. Find out more about the Clean Slate Fund established through a Memphis Bar Foundation grant.

 

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DIVERSIONS.

In 2014, the Jericho Project diverted 97 people battling mental illness and/or addiction from incarceration. Since its inception, nearly 60% of those participating in Jericho have successfully completed their recovery plans; they have also avoided further contact with the criminal justice system. You can learn more about the Jericho Project here.

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JOBS.

Advance Memphis was founded in 1999 to bring economic revitalization to one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Since then, the people of the 38126 community have partnered with this non-profit to build an impressive record. In 2014 alone, 132 people found employment after gaining job and life skills training through Advance Memphis. Read about Advance Memphis here.

 

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HOMES.

The Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH)  reports that 635 Memphians left homelessness for permanent housing in 2014! These impressive gains were made possible by a network of providers throughout the greater Memphis area. These efforts were coordinated through CAFTH, a private, non-profit entity that provides planning, technical assistance, and service coordination to public and private agencies working to end homelessness in Memphis and Shelby County. Learn about The Community Alliance for the Homeless here.

 

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 CONSULTS.

On the second Saturday morning of each month, you’ll find civil and criminal lawyers from firms big and small gathered at the Memphis Public Library. It’s the Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS)/Memphis Bar Association (MBA) Saturday Legal Clinic where anyone who needs free legal advice can get it.  In 2014, lawyers volunteering with the MALS/MBA Saturday Legal Clinic served 908 people! Click here to find out more about the MALS/MBA Saturday Legal Clinic.

 

Lifeline

 CLEARED LOTS.

Lifeline to Success is a non-profit that uses training and community service to provide those returning from incarceration some of the tools they need to have a more productive life. People accepted into the training must begin taking classes 6 months before being released.  After their release, they immediately begin training with Lifeline. The program also runs the highly respected Blight Patrol — people returning from incarceration are put to work clearing blighted lots in Frayser. The result — the Blight Patrol provides a much needed service in a community littered with vacant properties and those doing the work find purpose in helping the community.  In 2014, 89 ex-offenders participated in Lifeline to Success and cleared 3,500 lots in Memphis! You can learn more about Lifeline to Success here.

PL.

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BURRITOS. 

If you see a group of cyclists handing out small, shiny, tinfoil packages around Memphis — you may have spotted the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry.  Each Wednesday evening and Saturday morning, volunteers gather to first roll nutritious burritos and put together supplemental packets for those in need (e.g. bug spray in the summer, coats and gloves in the winter). Then they ride through the city distributing these packets to those experiencing homelessness and anyone who is hungry and in need. By serving approximately 300 people each week, The Urban Bicycle Food Ministry estimates it has rolled more than 20,000 burritos in 2014! Read about the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry here.

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These seven groups are but a snapshot of the organizations doing good and difficult work in Memphis and Shelby County. These efforts bring hope to those who have none and help clear a path for Memphians who continue to face barriers in our social, civic and criminal justice systems. In 2015, consider supporting these and other organizations that work to bring more equity and access to justice in our community. And when you read about other good and just work being done — share it with us on social media using #SeeJustice

Here’s to a more just Memphis in 2015!

Students ‘Plunge’ into Access to Justice Disparities

They are high school students attending one of the most prestigious private schools in Memphis. While St. Mary’s is proud of its  generations of high-achieving students and alumnae, the Episcopal girls’ school also encourages civic involvement.

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Students with St. Mary’s Episcopal School learning about access to justice issues from assistant Shelby County Public Defender, Josh Spickler (speaking bottom right.)

That’s why a group of 18 girls took part in the school’s week-long “Service Plunge,” which included a stop at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.

Assistant Chaplain, Susan Whitten, coordinated the service/learning camp — students researched and discussed a topic area in the morning and connected with a related service organization in the afternoon to learn more or volunteer. The theme for this  year’s camp was “access” — access to quality food, housing, education, health and justice.

If people don’t have access or the knowledge of how to access those services or to get help, they really do fall between the cracks,” said Whitten. “That’s really one of the big ways we can change things in Memphis, is if we can help people have the knowledge of those services and for them to be able to access them.

The access to justice component of the plunge included watching a video about the Jericho project, a jail diversion program for those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

Josh Spickler, Director of the Defender’s Resource Network for the public defender’s office, also gave a presentation that focused on mass incarceration statistics, as well as the systemic inequities for poor criminal defendants in Shelby County — the same people who are charged in the more than 30,000 cases handled annually by the Shelby County Public Defenders.

The young women in this camp asked excellent questions about our justice system,” said Spickler.  “They seemed to really struggle with why so few resources have been devoted to such a tremendous need in our community. That’s a question our lawyers struggle with everyday.”

Rising Sophomore Rachel Caldwell is on St. Mary’s mock trial team. She aspires to be a doctor, but she’s fascinated with what she’s learned about the public defender’s office.

Caldwell said she believes teenagers are ready and open to learn about difficult issues, such as racial disparities within the criminal justice system.  She believes not enough professionals think to share this kind of information with people her age … and Caldwell things they should.

We are the future. We are old enough to know. We’re not necessarily old enough to do something about it now, but we’ll be there someday,” says Caldwell. “If we have the correct knowledge and understanding to address the problem early enough, then we can do a good job.”

And that’s exactly why Chaplain Whitten coordinates this camp each year.

I’m hoping that when they hear from people like Josh [Spickler] that they’ll be inspired and think, ‘I can do that. I can be a public defender,'” says Whitten. “Getting the word out about these types of programs and developing these kinds of programs, like the Jericho project, like the kinds of great things that Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush is doing … that they’ll think, ‘I love Memphis and I want to come back. I want to do something like that.’  We have to show them a model and show them it’s possible. Then they can dream to become it.”

You can read about the other organizations these St. Mary’s campers visited in this Commercial Appeal article.