The Road to Memphis and a Seat at the Lorraine

Oh where to begin. There is so much to say, so I’ll start at the beginning. I grew up with the Logan Family. I have been living with them since the age of nine. Periodically, throughout the years, I would return to Mississippi for a visit. If you are a Mildred D. Taylor fan like I am, then you know who I am talking about. The book, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry has always stayed with me because it was about a strong Black family who struggled to hold on to their property in the 1930s and 40s. The story reminded me so much of my own family that I was compelled to write, The Promise of Palmettos. Ms. Taylor was as much of an influence to me as my own family, so I was over the moon when she wrote Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis. No wonder the Civil War/Reconstruction and World War II are my favorite eras in history.

This weekend, I was excited to finally walk in the steps, somewhat, of main character, Cassie Logan as my husband and I headed to Memphis ourselves. Although Cassie was a fictional character, I got chills as I rode along Highway 51, the same roadway she and her friends took from Jackson, Mississippi into this city (I was coming from the direction of Millington). As we made our way through Memphis, I became excited as I took in the architecture of downtown, traveling along the streets and taking in the sites I had only read about. My jubilation was quickly and abruptly squelched however, when we came across Jackie Smith at the Lorraine Motel. One may ask, “Who is Jackie Smith?” Well she is a woman. A Black woman who has set up shop across the street from the very place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She has her folding table set up beneath an umbrella to protect her and her little pamphlets from the hot sun. Three signs are hung from her table:

1. Stop Worshipping the Past, Start Living the Dream
2. This site Honors James Earl Ray
3. Gentrification is an Abuse of Civil Liberties

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My husband and I just stood there with identical incredulous looks on our faces, taking in the foolery and watched as people passed by this woman’s table and asked questions. And she rationalized her ignorance. Ms. Smith is protesting the Lorraine Motel Historical Monument. She refuses to enter the museum because she feels that it goes against everything Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for. Instead of preserving the site, she feels that the motel should be low income housing. Therefore, she has sat at her perch, across the street for – wait for it – The past. Twenty-three. Years. I have to say that my problems with Jackie Smith are so huge that I am going to have to address her and her little signs one by one.

1. Stop Worshipping the Past, Start Living the Dream
To me, history isn’t something with which to dwell, but to learn from and be inspired by. Although Cassie Logan was a fictional character, her experiences with segregation and discrimination were very much real. To forget, is disrespectful. Let me say that again. To forget is disrespectful. It is disrespectful to discount the past sacrifices made that got us to this point in history. It is on the shoulders of our ancestors that we stand. So Miss Lady thinks that the site of Martin Luther King’s death all paved over and white washed would serve his legacy better? According to her, we are forgetting his dream. Excuse me? So instead of working to help the people that she feels this site should have been for, this lady sits there and hands out pamphlets that spout her ignorance. Meanwhile, people who gather at her table are seeking her permission to forget about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. My husband and I hear the murmurings, “She’s got a point,” from the crowd as she is telling the public, with her protest, that it is okay for them to not acknowledge that era of our American History. If we people of color do not remember and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who fought for our Civil Rights, why should everyone else? And if we don’t, who will? If madam has ever read a history book, listened to the stories of her ancestors, and gotten over herself, she would know that Black people, even before Martin Luther King, Jr., knew that to be successful in this country, they had to have an education (vocational or formal) in order to be elevated to the middle class. As a result, they would be economically successful.

2. This site Honors James Earl Ray.
What does sitting there with a one-woman show, steps away from where the shots were fired to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr., actually do? Who does it even help? People – Black and White – visit the Lorraine Motel. They shed tears. They say a prayer. They teach their children. Among this, I am not seeing how any of this honors James Earl Ray. If anyone is setting up a monument for King’s murderer, it is Jackie Smith. She is murdering history with her propaganda. Her pseudo philosophies are just firing the fatal shot all over again. Only instead of killing the body, she’s killing the dream King left behind. And I resent her very presence. Sun up to sun down, she’s out there. How exactly is she contributing to the society she feels the Lorraine Motel abandoned? That is all I have to say about that foolishness.

3. Gentrification is an abuse of Civil Liberties.
I get that people have issues with gentrification and rightly so. The displacement of residents and the loss of history are the serious downsides. But in order for economic prosperity and revitalization to occur, gentrification needs to happen. Also, consider the fact that gentrification is no longer just confined to small pockets in the urban area. The process is globalized as government entities recognize that the purposeful placement of the middle class brings in a much needed tax base, resulting in economic stability. And Martin Luther King, Jr. was all for that. Also, the globalization of gentrification means that it is not going away. At all. That is why we need to gentrify our own selves! If you can’t beat the process, be a part of the process. And if Miss Lady is saying that the Lorraine Motel is a sign of gentrification, then why isn’t she sitting outside of other gentrified spaces like the rehabilitated commercial properties, the gated infill neighborhoods (Uh, you don’t gate urban single family residential spaces, but that’s another blog post), or the pedestrian walkway/trolley route with her little pamphlets?

I cannot with Ms. Smith. I can respect a difference of opinion. But I cannot respect this so-called stand that she has taken. In fact, I am going to need her to have all of the seats available.

Now I want to speak directly to Miss Smith: If you want to take a stand for the homeless and the poor, then take your stand by doing something that will actually help them. Sitting outside of a historical site, baking in the Tennessee sun and freezing in the Tennessee winter for the past 23 years will not get the homeless and the poor the tools that they need to strive for that economic prosperity that King preached about in his I’ve Been to the Mountain Top Speech. Remember that speech for the sanitation workers given in your fair city the day before he died? You say stop worshipping the past? Really? The Lorraine Motel Monument has been built, drawing hundreds of people daily, so clearly people want to pay homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. They want to. So that ship has sailed. Meanwhile, you madam, still remain on the shore. Going nowhere. Such a shame, though. Think of all the people you could have helped if that was truly your agenda.

Cassie Logan would be ashamed of this. All she and people like her endured so that we can have our civil rights, and this Jackie Smith woman is the payback. But her signs mean nothing to me. That road to Memphis has been my inspiration and I will carry it with me always.

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