Memphis is no stranger to civil rights struggles. In 1968, city sanitation workers went on strike after two workers were killed on a city garbage truck. The strike lasted more than two months and eventually brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to town to help elevate the voices of workers, whose protests were being ignored by Mayor Henry Loeb. It was during King's visit to lead a peaceful march that he was shot at the Lorraine Motel.
So it makes sense that the Mississippi Worker's Center for Human Rights has chosen Memphis to host its fifth biannual Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference (SHROC), a three-day event aimed at organizing activists around a number of human rights issues, from the disenfranchisement of African-American voters and the global lock-out of the working poor to hate crimes against the gay community and concerns about police brutality. The conference will be held at the Holiday Inn Select from December 10th through the 12th.
"We'll be addressing worker's rights, criminal justice, policies about immigrant workers, racial profiling, as well as children in public schools and the difference in treatment in terms of discipline," said Jeribu Hill, founder of the conference and director of the Mississippi Worker's Center for Human Rights.
Hill said the conference goal is to solidify the Southern Human Rights Organizers' Network, a coalition of activists that grows with each conference. The network develops methods of organizing protests and demonstrations across the Deep South.
This year's theme, "Building Links Across the Global South," compares issues in the South to civil rights struggles worldwide. Some of the conference speakers will address problems they've faced in their home countries of Brazil, Nigeria, Colombia, and Canada.
"Whether you're in Colombia, Latin America, or Columbia, Mississippi, the problem with human rights abuses and oppression is a part of everyday existence for people who are marginalized or victims of economic oppression," said Hill. "We want to highlight and pinpoint the commonality between abuses suffered in the Deep South and around the globe."
The conference will offer panel discussions on obstacles faced by victims of civil rights struggles, on grassroots organization, and on fund-raising. Workshops will cover environmental justice, workers' rights, the permanent disenfranchisement of felons, the war on terror, the war on drugs, how to use the media, and how to use legal advocacies to advance human rights.
On opening night, SHROC will host a "Cultural Explosion" ceremony honoring leaders from the 1968 sanitation workers' strike, other Memphis labor leaders, and various Southern activists. Brotha's Keepa, a local spoken-word ensemble, will perform, and there will be a showing of At the River I Stand, a documentary on the sanitation strike. The event, at the National Civil Rights Museum, is free and open to the public.
Also on opening night, the conference will host a Youth Summit, in which young activists will discuss issues such as education, juvenile justice, and unemployment.
Hill said they're expecting a broad audience for the conference, including human rights activists, legal advocates, religious leaders, and union officials.
The first Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference was held in 1996 in Oxford, Mississippi. Other conferences have been held in Jackson, Mississippi, Atlanta, and Miami. Hill was working in Oxford on a public-law fellowship when she conceived the idea for the conference.
"When I started doing work in Mississippi as an advocate and volunteer, it became painfully obvious to me that basic human rights were still being denied in the state," she said. "People were woefully under-represented and unsupported in their efforts to change that. There had never been a conference like this in the Deep South, and I decided that it was time to call activists together.
"SHROC's really taken on a life of its own because people see the need to dialogue on a regular basis. We've built an institution out of that dialogue," said Hill. "It's really grown by leaps and bounds, and this year, we've reached a record number of registrants." •
The Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference will be held at the Holiday Inn Select (2240 Democrat Road) from December 10th to 12th. For more information, visit Shroc.org.