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A few days ago I revisited the National Civil Rights Museum & Jacqueline Smith at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. It had been 3 years and 192 days since my last visit to this location. I know this from comparing Jacqueline Smith’s protest days sign I took pictures of. During my first visit I was in a hurry do to time constraints. So I didn’t stop to have a conversation with Jacqueline. This year even though it was starting to get late in the day I made sure to try and strike up a conversation. At first opening a “dialogue” seemed forced. I’m not sure if she just didn’t feel like talking in the cold weather or if she didn’t like me. After a bit of feeling out we had a nice talk.
With the success of the National Civil Rights Museum I’d assume not many visitors are taking Jacqueline Smith’s advice and boycotting it. What I will say is what I stated at the end of our conversation. That even if you don’t agree with her opinion you should at least listen or read what she has to say so you can form your own opinion on the subject.
The conversation started with me saying that I had visited a few years back but didn’t take the time to chat. So this year I had wanted to see what items she had displayed and maybe have a chat. During our talk I mentioned how all the surrounding buildings were being turned into condos. I asked if anyone hassled her or if most people left her alone now. She stated she has lawyers for that and didn’t get involved when & if authorities gave her any hassles. I made mention for those who thought she wasn’t present during adverse weather that her being there that day showed differently. Granted I have no way of knowing if she was there all night. From what I have read she may only protest during the day.
During our talk I mentioned how Graceland had it’s expansion plans on hold. But the corporation that runs it had bought land. I told her I’d had a conversation with a Graceland employee about where the people from the surrounding neighborhood would go. The Graceland employee and I had a very serious discussion about how many people in that area probably couldn’t afford to move. She told me that at least one apartment complex had already been vacated and torn down.
Some would argue that Graceland brings enough tourist to Memphis that it should be given a pass in regards to making sure the community around it isn’t affected by it’s expansion plans. Others might say that the area around Graceland looks nothing like it did when Elvis lived there. So these upcoming changes aren’t anything to get up in arms about. History has shown that visitors won’t even give a second thought to those who were displaced by this business plan. Of course it could be argued that such a high profile business should do what it needs to so that it can stay profitable. Where do you draw the line between the social good versus the overall economic value?
This is what has happened all around the National Civil Rights Museum and in many other communities around the world. The neighborhoods around the Lorraine Motel were once working class. Now many of the old buildings have been turned into condos and shops. Some people would ask what is wrong with that? It depends on which side of the fence you are on. If you used to living in that neighborhood you were most likely chased out then priced out from coming back and living there. Many would say this is the cost of progress. But where did all those residents go? Did they all find homes?
Even though the citizens of Memphis take great offense when it is pointed out – there is much decay in their community. Just like almost any city in America there is a mix of old and new. The old in many cases has seen better days. What is being maintained is either for tourist purposes or being redeveloped into new uses. In any city where this takes place those who lived in these neighborhoods are almost always displaced. Some say this is for the good of the community. Which isn’t true because if what is being re-purposed was a trouble spot then that problem just gets moved to another part of the city. If people lose their homes and become homeless this adds to the burdens of social services.
The Lorraine Motel is an example of everything written above. It was a motel slowly drifting in to years gone by and according to some becoming a piece of the old starting to decay. At this point the property was sold and became the National Civil Rights Museum. Was this a benefit or a negative for the citizens of Memphis? Again I’d bet your point of view would be determined by which side of the tracks you lived on. For those who were living at the Lorraine Motel who forced to leave & find homes this very well could have been a negative. Has anyone ever bothered to track these people down and see how their lives turned out after the move? For the politicians, business people and tax coffers I’m sure the National Civil Rights Museum has been a positive. It has brought even more national & international attention to Memphis Tennessee. This I’m pretty sure has led to higher tourist numbers visiting the area.
Jacqueline Smith feels that turning the Lorraine Motel into the National Civil Rights Museum was a disservice to those who lived in that community. She also questions if the museum is less about education and more a celebration of violence. But you have to ask – shouldn’t places where historic events have taken place be preserved and used as tools for education? Should Dealey Plaza not be preserved in Dallas to educate people on the events that took place there? The violence that took place there was just as horrific as the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel. Jacqueline Smith questions if Dr. King would be happy with this memorial. She feels he would have preferred the funds for this museum be used for those in need. But some might argue the National Civil Rights Museum does proved for those less fortunate.
By bringing visitors to the City of Memphis tax dollars are raised that might be used for social services to help those in need. Unfortunately that is most likely not happening on the level it needs to be. From my 2 visits to the area I can see many places that could use funds to refurbish and uplift the community. This unfortunately is not just a Memphis problem. Decay inside of many American cities is a problem not being addressed. Helping those who live within this decay isn’t a priority it should be.
Here is an important question that was touched upon in my conversation with Jacqueline Smith. Are the tourist the real problem? I’d argue that tourist provide jobs and revenue for a community. But without tourist visiting the National Civil Rights Museum it wouldn’t have a need to exist in Memphis. The museum would have no one to educate or share history with. If the tourist are the real problem not many of them will care. When Graceland changes the face of the neighborhood I doubt many visitors will ask where did the people who were here before move to. Many of us use products and services from companies that cause destruction, death and pollution daily. Very few of us vote with our spending dollars by making purchases from companies that are more socially responsible.
Jacqueline Smith said to me if they would stop promoting Graceland it would die. It would be interesting to see if that was true. If the corporation that runs Graceland stopped all marketing today – would visitors still come in masses to visit the grave & home of Elvis Presley?
While I’ve not covered everything that was discussed that day I have touched on some of the more important topics. I said to Jacqueline I don’t know many people who would have her type of dedication nowadays. As I was trying to leave for something like the third time she asked me if I had seen the URL for the website. This is when I told her I had written about my visit 3 years before. I stated that I felt even if my readers didn’t agree with her point of view they should at least view it & discuss it to make up their own minds. I’m almost sure she gave me a smile at that comment.
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