Thieves of Black History

Thieves of Black History

In the struggle over the ownership of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, black history is on sale at bargain prices.


If Beale Street could talk, as James Baldwin famously imagined, then somewhere around Memphis’s South Fourth Street it would let out an agonizing cry. Facing east, the garish neon commodification of the blues stands behind you–a trap for tourists and an insult to the legacy of a great musical tradition. Commerce here is thriving from a culture it doesn’t respect. Ahead sprawls the desolation and poverty of the communities that gave blues its meaning and to whom the blues returned some dignity.

A block away at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center, around eighty people have gathered to prevent the pilfering of yet more local black heritage. Twenty years ago, the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, was turned into a National Civil Rights Museum. The chair of the executive committee of its board, J.R. "Pitt" Hyde III, is a wealthy white Republican. Charged with safeguarding a vital landmark in the nation’s racial history, Hyde lobbied for the defeat of Harold Ford Jr.’s bid for the vacant Senate seat from Tennessee in what was widely regarded as the most racist campaign of the 2006 election. While Hyde has been representing the civil rights museum, the company he founded, AutoZone, has been embroiled in a longstanding EEOC racial discrimination lawsuit.

The board, on which blacks are a minority, is packed with those who dedicate their lives not to civil rights but to corporate profits. And they know how to do business. Recently the board discussed exercising an option to buy the museum building from the State of Tennessee, which owns it, for $1. (Apparently they never made a formal offer, as they knew it would be rejected.) Black history on sale at bargain prices.

For some, the moral price of surrendering such a crucial site to big money was too high. Community activists have been fighting back, battling not only for control of a building but the stewardship of history. "No race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength," wrote Martiniquan poet and activist Aimé Césaire. "There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory." But who gets which place and what stories they hear when they get there is determined by power, not happenstance.

The struggle over the future of the Lorraine Motel highlights three crucial developments in the nearly forty years since King was assassinated. First, it demonstrates how much of the civil rights agenda remains to be accomplished. King had been in Memphis campaigning for better pay and conditions for striking sanitation workers. "In the past in the civil rights movement, we have been dealing with segregation and all of its humiliation; we’ve been dealing with the political problem of the denial of the right to vote," he said ten days before he died. "I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem."

Hyde and the corporate agenda he represents remain at the core of that "problem," which keeps one in four Memphis residents (who are mostly black) below the poverty line.

The civil rights movement made great strides in achieving integration. But that victory prompted white supremacy to become more skillful and subtle in its bid for self-preservation. Segregation was outlawed, but its economic, social and cultural legacy was left intact. Black people in Memphis now have the right to go into any restaurant they like. Unfortunately, many cannot afford anything on the menu.

Second, the story of the Lorraine museum is a brazen example of the crude but effective manner in which the right, which fought so hard to thwart the work of the civil rights movement in its heyday, has sought to buy, co-opt or otherwise manipulate the movement’s most popular emblems.

Four years ago fundamentalists stood on the steps of Alabama’s Supreme Court building, waving Confederate flags and singing "We Shall Overcome" as they protested the removal of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda. A few months earlier, opponents of affirmative action went to the building to protest a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment–ratified to protect the rights of freed slaves. They called on universities to judge applicants not by "the color of their skin but by the content of their character," words of course lifted from King’s "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Nowadays they like the fact that they can sit down to dinner at the site of the King assassination," says Circuit Judge D’Army Bailey, a founder of the museum who was ousted from the board. "It gives them a good feeling. Corporations want to be identified with it because that kind of identification brings pacification. It’s been hijacked."

Finally, the struggle in Memphis shows that despite all this, the spirit of the civil rights movement–the grassroots campaigning, organizational commitment and moral purpose that mobilized so many–persists. "This is our history," said Ron Herd II, 27, during the public meeting at the labor center. "If we don’t defend it, who will?"

Together, local campaigners and members of the Tennessee General Assembly’s black caucus have blocked the board’s bid to lease the museum for an extended period and effectively quashed its hopes of buying it outright–at least for now. Recently members of the City Council’s park committee approved a motion that could lead to Memphis gaining control and working toward an agreement with the National Park Service similar to those at historical sites in Little Rock and Atlanta.

"Progress in human affairs," wrote E.H. Carr in What Is History?, "has come mainly through the bold readiness of human beings not to confine themselves to seeking piecemeal improvements in the way things are done, but to present fundamental challenges in the name of reason to the current way of doing things and to the avowed or hidden assumptions on which it rests." That was as true forty years ago on the streets of Memphis as it is today.

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