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 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.