Pastor Walter Womack was among an array of people representing various groups as they made a pitch for raises beyond what Mayor Jim Strickland called for in his budget proposal. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/TSD Archives)

By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell

In a former life, Pastor Walter Womack of Faithful Baptist Church was the “right-hand man” to the late Rev. Dwight Montgomery, the outspoken, long-time president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Memphis Chapter.

Today, as the organization’s leader, Womack is finding there is a high price to be paid for being a civil rights leader.

“I saw first-hand how Pastor Montgomery continued to put his own money into the organization because there was always a shortage of resources,” said Womack. “I’ve been president of Memphis SCLC for three years now. And now, I find myself doing the exact, same thing because there is a serious lack of funding.”

All those years of shadowing Montgomery and supporting SCLC efforts to bring about the “beloved community” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke about paid off in 2018 when heir-apparent Womack took the mantle of leadership during the MLK50 celebration.

“There was a big march during the 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. King’s death,” said Womack. “His son, Martin Luther King III, was here, and there were programs and celebrations surrounding my installation as leader of the local SCLC chapter.

“But there is a tremendous sacrifice of time as well as finances. The work must continue, and I am committed to our vision.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the longtime leader of the national SCLC.

Womack is willing to pay the price of leadership, but there are some “fundamental issues” he feels the organization continues to struggle with, namely “basic disrespect for the organization” and the “great decline in membership numbers since the 1960s when Dr. King led SCLC.

“I would like to see the Memphis SCLC become a more powerful force in fighting crime and the effects of poverty in our communities,” said Womack.

“My vision for growth involves more participation of those Dr. King came here to serve when he was killed. We want to partner with AFSCME in the continued fight for fair wages and healthcare equality.”

Montgomery, who died in September of 2017 at the age of 67, took a reflective look at his own presidency in a news interview just weeks before his death.

“Ever since I have been President, we have worked to minimize negative gang activity, getting mentors and tutors for our public schools.  We have tried to stand up for people who have been cut from TennCare. We stood up with the Kellogg’s workers who were locked out,” Montgomery said.

Womack has sought to build on the work Montgomery started. Crime, poverty and taking a stand with union workers has always been part of SCLC’s mission, he said.

“People are being held back when there is not a decent, livable wage being paid,” said Womack. “Crime and poverty go hand in hand. People are not being raised out of the level of poverty, and the wealth gap continues to grow so wide that a young man cannot feed his family and drive a decent car. Poverty breeds crime.”

Womack shares the belief of Montgomery as he vowed to turn his attention to public education. Montgomery felt young people “must be shown that the way out of poverty is getting a good education.”

This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender.

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