Frank Johnson: ‘We can’t go back to the normal way of doing things because the normal in this country is dangerous.’
Image: Self portrait by Frank Johnson for MLK50
By Frank Johnson, Special to MLK50
I am a native South Memphian who has witnessed black communities devastated by economic oppression. I had a plan to help, but COVID-19 has blocked it and my livelihood.
For the last few years, I’ve been employed as a school teacher or worked as a substitute. I’m also an activist involved in environmental justice issues. I’ve served on the board of the Shelby County Democratic Party and ran for a seat on the City Council in 2019.
But my education and work background have not kept me from the precipice of losing everything because of the domino effect of the coronavirus pandemic. I have no job, no health insurance and don’t know how I will pay bills.
But my education and work background have not kept me from the precipice of losing everything because of the domino effect of the coronavirus pandemic.
I left the security of a teaching position two years ago and began substitute teaching so I would have time to pursue a mission — helping rebuild the Alcy-Ball community where I grew up and live.
I’ve watched gentrification, presented as development, wipe away the black face of Memphis. For example, the former Foote Homes public housing development near downtown was rebranded as “South City.”
Many people don’t remember that Foote Homes was built on a toxic landfill, but before that the area was home to a thriving black middle class and one of the nation’s first black millionaires, Robert R. Church. I refuse to let my community be erased.
The Alcy-Ball community was one of the first in Memphis for black working-class people. It has a rich history of black entrepreneurship and homeownership. However, like other black communities, Alcy-Ball has suffered from economic policies such as redlining.
My neighbors and I found it almost impossible to get insurance on our homes for several years. And almost all of the businesses closed during the 1980s — most of them were owned by community residents.
The area still suffers from physical and mental health issues, and environmental fallout from the toxins stored in and around the Memphis Defense Depot. Though the federal government claimed in reports there is no proven link between the chemicals buried at the site and health issues, it has not accounted for the cancers that have claimed neighbor after neighbor, young and old, in my community.
After meeting with members of our neighborhood association, we realized the Alcy-Ball area still has viability. We have people in our community with all the knowledge, talent and skills needed to rebuild our own neighborhood.
We started two years ago with rebuilding the neighborhood association and developing resident-run businesses. We have even laid out plans to redevelop property that now has three empty apartment complexes and hope to turn them into independent living facilities and work spaces for small businesses.
I don’t know how any of this is going to work out. But I see us coming together and understanding that we have each other to lean on.
We decided to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to developing our community.
I left my teaching position and began substitute teaching so I could devote more time to this work, going from more than $3,100 a month to about $1,800.
My substitute teaching job was through Kelly Services, a temp service, which gave me some control over my schedule and allowed me to generate income as I went through the process of building this organization. Then COVID-19 happened.
On March 12, Shelby County Schools announced it would be closing its doors until March 30. At first, I wasn’t that concerned because we could take jobs in surrounding counties where schools were still open.
However, those systems quickly suspended their classes and substitute teachers were informed by Kelly Services that we would not be paid for the time the school systems are closed.
We were encouraged to file for unemployment and offered links to other available resources.
Schools now are closed “until further notice.” I am without income and insurance benefits. I tried to get insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace at the beginning of December and the cheapest plan I was offered cost well over $500 a month, though I am 42 years old and have no children.
That is not affordable health care. Yes, I am frightened because I wonder what will happen if I get sick.
I have bills that are due, including my house payment. I am anxious about tomorrow because I don’t know what is going to happen.
But my story is the story of so many in this city and this country. The American Dream is depicted as this glorious thing that we should all strive for. However, we quickly learn that it is fiction.
We see so-called “entrepreneurs” held up as the model that we should follow, but often we learn these individuals are trust fund babies who have a safety net. We are told that a safety net would make us lazy and we should pull ourselves up by the “bootstraps,” which doesn’t even make sense.
COVID-19 has brought to light the very issues I and others like me have been fighting to expose. A little over a month ago, the idea of a Medicare-for-all system in this country was being beaten down from network to network. “How are we going to pay for it?” critics would ask.
What a difference a month makes.
Now we watch as our for-profit healthcare system fails in the face of a pandemic while it still searches for ways to profit off the crisis. We see how much COVID-19 testing costs and how little of that insurance plans cover, though new legislation will provide some relief.
How many NBA players and movie stars have been tested but we don’t have enough tests to give to regular people? Now, we see the virus spreading and the numbers growing every day.
When we asked for a public healthcare system we were told that there is no money, but we watched $1.5 trillion get pumped into Wall Street as the stock market plunged to new lows. So, we’ve always had the money but our country is more focused on profit than people.
Can you imagine what would happen if people in this country didn’t have to worry about medical care?
How many of us work part time at the FedEx hub because we need health care insurance? I’ve done it — twice.
I don’t know how any of this is going to work out. But I see us coming together and understanding that we have each other to lean on. Maybe we can build from this.
I know we have to see real change in our city and our country. We can’t go back to the “normal” way of doing things because the normal in this country is dangerous.
This is part of an essay series from Memphis workers affected by COVID-19. The series is produced by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in partnership with High Ground News.