The civil rights struggle of 50 years ago—Nashville was the first southern city to desegregate public services, setting an example for activists throughout the South—continues today, but now it is more focused on economic equality. That was the main takeaway from the ULI Spring Meeting session titled “Civil Rights: Activism for Equity—Building a More Inclusive City,” during which panelists discussed how much the civil rights struggle has achieved and how much further it has to go.
The event was held at the Nashville Public Library. Community leaders sat beneath a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. etched in glass: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”
Panelists included Nashville community activists as well as U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, who represents the 5th congressional district of Tennessee, which includes Davidson County (Nashville); and H. Beecher Hicks III, chief executive officer of the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), which is scheduled to open this year in Nashville. It will be the only museum dedicated to preserving the legacy and celebrating the accomplishments of the many music genres created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans. The panelists discussed how disadvantaged citizens must gain economic equality as well as equal rights.
Moderator David Steele Ewing, an attorney and Nashville historian, noted that students in the 1960s were willing to give their lives to desegregate the city’s public lunch counters.
“Today, I ask my students, ‘What is your lunch counter? What would you give your life for?’” Ewing said. “We talk about people sitting down to protest—but now we are talking about standing up.”
Our Civil Rights: Activism for Equity—Building a More Inclusive City roundtable discussion, included US Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-05 and Project Register), and Henry Hicks of the National Museum of African American Music. #ULISpring https://t.co/hN6xt9LB8w pic.twitter.com/H9CfZaT4km
— Urban Land Institute (@UrbanLandInst) April 19, 2019
Cooper noted that without justice there is no peace, and without peace there is no business. “There should be more than civil rights. It should be about economic opportunities as well,” he said. He added that young people need to register to vote, but noted that Tennessee is 50th—dead last—in voter registration.
Hicks noted that the room in which the session was held sits atop the place where many of the 1960s marches and sit-ins occurred. As CEO of NMAAM, located in the Fifth and Broadway development, Hicks noted that the museum was 20 years in making. “It is a $50 million project and was an uphill battle all the way,” he added. “We will tell a story never before told—the American soundtrack through the prism of the people who created it.”
Alex Macias, community development manager of Conexión Américas, an organization founded in 2002 to build bridges between Middle Tennessee’s Latino immigrants and locally born residents, said the struggle today is for citizens to make their voices heard. He added that Nolensville Pike, which served as a backdrop for then–President Obama’s visit to Nashville to discuss his executive actions on immigration—is the location of dozens of international businesses—businesses that act as gathering places, employment centers, and economic drivers for the immigrant community.
“We look at a street where immigrants call their street their home,” he said. “It is a community for them. We look to voice their concerns and want to show the leaders our perspective.”
Activist and community organizer Odessa Kelly, co-chair of Stand Up Nashville, a coalition that seeks to influence legislation on the economy and other issues, noted that between 94 and 100 new residents arrive in Nashville each day. “Nashville is a welcoming city, but are we really progressive?” she asked. “I see a lot of black faces of the working class who are being pushed out of their communities. Today, everyone who looks like me has been moved out.”
Hicks noted that the city is only 28 percent African American, adding that residents want to be part of the community but have some concerns. “We want to make sure that we have the same opportunity as others have, but equity is something we will have a difficult time achieving,” he said. “We operate the same way everyone else has, so we can dispel that fear and . . . over time we become more trusted, more welcome.”
Corporate America fears the urban culture, he said. “As we’ve gone through the process for the museum, we’ve faced certain language that shows up in legal documents which seems to be designed to dissuade the culture. The lease might say we must close at 5 p.m., but why do we have to close at 5 p.m. when no one else does?”
Poor immigrant communities often lack basic services that other neighborhoods have, so organizations such as Conexion Americas work with the city to improve neighborhoods. “It can be as simple as making sure people can safely cross the street,” Macias said. “One intersection was on a bus line, but there wasn’t a way of crossing the street. People had to traverse four blocks. There were plans to put in a crosswalk, but we advocated for quicker action. It is unacceptable to have people dying to cross the street.”
Kelly said she works mostly in churches and workplaces. “We’re trying to bring equity to the city,” she said. “There is not only social and racial injustice, but also economic injustice. We try to bring issues to the surface. Teachers in the city are underpaid, the public workers who collect garbage are underpaid, and can’t live in the city.”
Cooper agreed that the people who work in Nashville need to be able to live there, but over half of firefighters, teachers, and police officers cannot live in the city.
Nashville received some $2 billion worth of property gratis from the federal government, he noted—a transfer of old housing projects. “That should be developed in a way to benefit us all,” he said.
Activists such as Kelly are working to change policies affecting real estate development. Stand Up Nashville helped draft the “Do Better Bill,” which stipulates that before the Metro Council votes to give tax incentives to a company for a new building, the developers must first provide details of the jobs that deal will create.
“We need to change the policies we can control,” she said. “We are a blue city in a red state. Some of the companies who move here are terrible employers. They say they are bringing 5,000 jobs, but at what cost if the wages are low and there is no health care?”
Cooper added that the greatest resource on any balance sheet is human capital. “It is your greatest asset,” he said. “But do you want to pay minimum wage and have high employee turnover, or pay better and have continuity and excellence?”