Sunday, August 11, 2019

The National Civil Rights Museum

"Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights. And so just as I said, we aren't going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around. We aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. April 3, 1968

Jacqueline Smith
Jacqueline Smith has been sitting on the grounds of the National Civil Rights museum in silent protest for 31 years. The museum complex includes the Lorraine Motel building where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was killed in 1968. After his assassination, the owner of the hotel, Walter Bailey converted the hotel to low-income single room occupancy housing. In 1982, Bailey declared bankruptcy and the Lorraine would have been sold at auction had the Save The Lorraine organization not stepped in and bought it.  In 1984, the Save The Lorraine organization changed their name to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation and hoped to raise funds to restore the motel and convert it into a museum. This meant closing the hotel and having its residents move out in order to prepare for the 8.8 million dollar renovation.

The Lorraine officially ceased operations as an SRO hotel on March 2, 1988. On that day, deputies were called to forcibly remove Jacqueline Smith from the premises. She had been living there since 1973 and had worked for the motel as a housekeeper. Upon her eviction, her belongings were thrown into a pile across the street where she covered them with a tarp and set up camp and continued to live as she daily maintains her protest vigil. I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Smith at her camp today.

Smith believes that the money that has been spent and continues to be spent on The National Civil Rights Museum would be better spent furthering the work that Dr. King left unfinished. That's not to say that she believes there shouldn't be a museum. "There are several civil rights museums throughout the country and Memphis should have its own.", she said. In her opinion, however, locating the museum in the South Main Street area has led to gentrification and has pushed low-income residents out of their longtime homes. Smith believes that by locating the museum in the place of Dr. King's death, it is essentially the James Earl Ray memorial, as the museum is focusing too heavily on the violence of Dr. King's death rather than concentrating on the work he did while he alive. This goes against King's message of peace and non-violence.

I asked Ms. Smith what it would take for her to end her protest. After all, what's done is done. The museum is there and the money has been spent. She referred me to an opinion piece that she wrote last year: "Let's relocate the museum within Memphis along with its Klan hoods, James Earl Ray rifle, and other negative memorabilia and turn the Lorraine into an establishment that Dr. King and Memphis can rightly be proud of and where visitors can experience his dream in action", she wrote.

Before leaving, I asked her how she was holding up and she said that she was hanging in there just fine. The authorities don't bother her or try to move her on and most people are generally very nice to her when they engage with her.

The Lorraine Motel. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Room Is Marked With A Wreath

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