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.
Smith, a former maid and resident of the Lorraine, has been camped on the sidewalk across the street from the hotel every 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 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 has become 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, "We are reviewing our options."
Outside of Memphis, where she is a familiar icon—viewed as a hero by many blacks, a tolerated eccentric by many 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 have 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 for two years (and, tragically, ensuring its death).
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 than black people.
For more on Smith's protest visit www.fulfillthedream.net.
While in Memphis, I came across what was by far the most interesting commentary I'd seen on the Linda Chavez debacle; it came, oddly enough, in David Waters' religious column in the daily Commercial Appeal. Chavez should never have been pilloried for her acts of kindness toward Marta Mercado, a Guatemalan immigrant; instead, Democrats should have, but didn't, oppose her for Secretary of Labor because she was a completely unqualified right-wing pundit, a zealot who knew nothing about unions or industry and who has called for abolition of the minimum wage.
Subsequently, a lot of conservatives— including Dubya himself—defended Chavez's acts of "compassion." On this point, Waters writes, "Compassion is more than being nice or concerned. It's shared suffering. The word is derived from two Latin words—cum and pati—which combined mean 'to suffer together with.'
"What Chavez did was good and kind and should be applauded, not criticized. But by all accounts, she did it with minimal sacrifice to her position or standard of living. It was an act of charity, not an act of compassion.
"Compassion 'is not bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position,' explain three priests, Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison, in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. 'It is not reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below. It is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail. . . . Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.' That's what Mother Teresa did among the suffering outcasts of India. That's what Dorothy Day did among the suffering poor of New York City.
"That's what nuns, priests, and others did among the suffering civil war refugees of Guatemala and other Central American nations in the 1980s: 'We cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys,' wrote the three priests. 'Compassion without confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimentalism.'"
Chavez was part of the Reagan administration that bankrolled the Central American suffering. She, and the Bush administration, may believe in personal kindness—but they are emphatically not compassionate. When King went to Memphis, it was an act of compassion. How soon we forget.