Last Saturday, as the city geared up for MLK Day on Monday, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center (MSPJC) hosted their annual gala—celebrating 31 years working for nonviolence and community organizing in Memphis and the surrounding regions. The evening included a banquet provided by Just for Lunch, a performance of the one-man show “Starry Road to Freedom: The Life of Frederick Douglass,” and a keynote address by the award-winning career journalist and author Chris Hedges.
The Starry Road to Freedom
“Starry Road to Freedom” was flawlessly performed by writer and actor Phil Darius Wallace. The one-man show details major events throughout the young life of well-known abolitionist, orator, statesman, reformer, and author Frederick Douglass, who began life as a slave and ended a free man. The show watches Douglass as he returns to his former slave quarters and remembers important people in his early life—from his vibrant, loving grandmother to other slaves and masters to his own childhood self—each character expansively portrayed by Wallace.
The show was a powerful tribute that beautifully balanced the dinner with Hedges’ talk to follow. Wallace’s booming voice echoed over the heads of the full banquet hall at the First Congregational Church as he began with the spiritual “Let My People Go,” strolling to the stage from the back of the room. He captured and held attention even over clinking silver at the end of the evening’s banquet, delivering a captivated and invigorated audience to MC Kenya Bradshaw and MSPJC Director Jacob Flowers some half an hour later.
The yearly “Update” by Flowers delivered a promising outlook for MSPJC—the staff has grown by two this year and the organization continues to breathe life into both new and venerable community organizations with each passing year. Their 2012 report emphasized the importance of recognizing that each individual is powerful, and that grassroots organization builds power among individuals into powerful groups. Engaging those groups to work together with targeted strategies for change mobilizes power for just causes. To that end, MSPJC has been working to build H.O.P.E., which stands for “Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality,” along with other grassroots organizations including GrowMemphis, Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz, and many others.
The Main Event
The Keynote Speaker for the evening was the distinguished Chris Hedges, Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Mr. Hedges is a veteran war correspondent and has been a notable commentator on the Occupy Movement.
Hedges delivered a deeply informed discussion of the roots and reasons for the current economic/ecological crisis in the U.S. and abroad. He examined historical contingencies as far back as the early 1900s, creating a century-long vision of changes in ideas about war, corporate structure, intellectualism, and politics that have brought us to the cusp of global environmental, social, and financial collapse. For Hedges, “the environmental crisis is intimately twinned with the economic crisis.”
Hedges’ vision is not a promising one.
One can sense the personal nature of Hedges’ position—after a lifetime spent telling the hard stories, delivering unflinching views of rising corporate greed and environmental devastation, he finds himself in a world that is, in his view, on the verge of obliterating itself. “We are all aboard the Pequod and Ahab is the captain,” Hedges said on Saturday, referencing the classic headlong rush to doom of the iconic captain in Moby Dick.
Said Hedges, “The only recourse we have left is civil disobedience,” rebuilding social movements in the face of Big Business. But, he cautioned, “These corporations know what’s coming.”
Hedges closed with a passage from his new book , Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, co-authored by renowned journalistic cartoonist Joe Sacco. The passage described his personal experience marching on Goldman-Sachs with members of the Occupy movement in New York. He has been marked, he said, physically and psychologically, by the stories he has seen in his lifetime, by children left dead and dying by war and disease and the uncaring dollar. He carried each of those faces with him to the doors of global privilege and power.
Read Hedges, “I see their faces. They haunt me in the day and come to me in the dark. They force me to remember. And they make me choose sides.”
Hedges is known for telling the hard stories unapologetically and forcefully, speaking truth to power even (and perhaps particularly) when it is unsettling and unpopular. In that settled, warm banquet hall in Memphis—with ghosts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unspoken in the background— Hedges reminded each of us that it is our job to speak up, to alter course, to somehow work each day to change things before the collective Ahabs of our culture sink the global ship.