Volume 5, #12 February 14, 2001 POLITICS WITH BITE! CONTACT HELP previous BACK ISSUES next

The Longest Sit

by Geov Parrish

I celebrated the MLK holiday weekend appropriately, in Memphis, Tennessee. I headed for the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. King was shot in '68, to visit with Jacqueline Smith. As I walked up, she was holding forth in grand style to 30 enthralled members of the Jackson State University track team. Their coach brought them.

I first met, and wrote about, Jacqueline three summers ago. She's still there. This year, she's got some new banners, and a web site (www.fulfullthedream.net), but not much else has changed. Smith, a former maid and resident of the Lorraine, has been camped on the sidewalk across the street from the hotel every day, day and night, since it was closed in 1988. That's when the State of Tennessee bought it in order to build what became the National Civil Rights Museum. Her ongoing, simple nonviolent protest, urging a boycott of the museum, is far more evocative of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s social justice struggles than anything inside could possibly be.

Smith makes a compelling, familiar-sounding, case--that the museum is a development scam, used to gentrify a poor, black, working-class neighborhood so that speculators--including people close to Memphis government--can cash in. Neighboring shanty houses that rented for $175 a month in 1988 are all gone, replaced by $800 condos close to downtown and the river.

The museum practices the same commodification--and whitewashing-- of Dr. King's politics, spiritual beliefs, and memory that typifies most celebrations of his birthday. A well-intentioned idea to commemorate the bravery of the civil rights struggle became a cynical, disingenuous exercise in money.

Here, indeed, is where the dream dies--except in the exceptional Jacqueline Smith: "The Lorraine Motel should be put to better uses, such as housing, job training, free college, clinic, or other services for the poor...the area surrounding the Lorraine should be rejuvenated and made decent and kept affordable, not gentrified with expensive condominiums that price the people out of their community."

The day I showed up was the 13th anniversary of Jacqueline's amazing, and endangered, protest. On January 3, the city of Memphis sent Smith a letter, demanding that she move her "vendor's booth" to make room for an $8 million museum expansion that will include, among other things, a re-creation of the room from which James Earl Ray shot King, and the gun he allegedly used. The museum is not only a fraud--it's ghoulish. Naturally, Smith is refusing to move; Jerry Collins, Memphis' director of public works, says that "We are reviewing our options."

Outside Memphis, where she is a familiar icon--viewed as a hero by many blacks, a tolerated eccentric by whites--Smith's protest has continued for 13 years without a peep of national interest from "progressive" people who supposedly care about issues like gentrification and civil rights. Smith's support has come entirely from neighbors, black churches, and folks like me who've met her over the years.

Jacqueline's protest dwarfs that of Julia "Butterfly" Hill, a younger, less articulate, but middle class and white defender of redwoods who became a minor eco-celebrity for sitting in a tree (and, tragically, ensuring its death) for two years.

Both protesters identified important national concerns and sought to publicize them by acts of awesome personal risk and sacrifice. Smith lasted far longer, and she has a lot more to say, about issues like racism and political posturing. Jacqueline Smith is a national treasure that nobody knows about. But then, it's much safer to care about trees (or, in Heidi Wills' case, zoo animals) than blacks.

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