Editorial Comments Connecting our Modern World to 1988
I was on my way to New Orleans this week, to present at the National Council on the Social Studies Conference, when my colleagues and I decided to make a stop at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Coming into the parking lot, we saw a woman sitting out on the corner. She was in a make-shift booth, surrounded by signs that indicated that she was protesting against the Museum. I didn’t think much of it at first, as I was more interested in seeing the place where Dr. King was tragically gunned down and in doing some contemplation. However, walking through the museum, my mind kept nagging me about the woman. I knew that I had read about her somewhere. As we stood by Dr King’s final room, and reflected on all that had happened there, I had a view of her across the street.
The guide told us about the process of securing the Lorraine Motel for the museum; it had fallen into a bad way of drugs, prostitution, and poverty. The museum board had evicted most of the tenants, except for the woman who was now sitting across the street. She apparently had fought for years to stay in her room. A lightbulb went on over my head! She was THE Jacqueline Smith, who had been evicted from this hotel in 1988. She had been a desk clerk and a tenant of the motel, and had to be forcibly removed by the police in 1988 after a 2 month stand off that included having her utilities shut off. I had read an article about Ms Jacqueline while putting together the blog, posted the news, and moved on. Now, here she was! The guide said, “I can’t remember what year it was that she was evicted, but she has been out there everyday since.” I said, “Was it 1988?” The guide looked at me like I was crazy. How would someone possibly know the year some obscure woman was evicted from the Lorraine Motel? The answer as always, the 1988 project.
“You know, she has never even been in here”, the guide informed us.
I had to speak with her. Adding her voice to the blog would be an interesting angle towards the human interest stories we are moving towards publishing. When we arrived at her little protest area, we noticed a sign which told us that she had been sitting there for 27 years, and 300 days. She was demanding the museum move from the Lorraine, and spend the money on fixing the poverty in Memphis. Clearly, her animosity towards the museum is also motivated by losing her home in 1988, and also the treatment she was given in forcibly removing her from the property.
We waited at the table while she engaged in a conversation with two African-American women, telling them that the museum only serves to promote violence. “What good does it do to take school children to a museum that shows all of that death? You read all about the violence against black people, where do you think that comes from? People come to the museum, see how it used to be, and go out relive it. Look at that case up here at the college, where they were tying lynch ropes in the trees. Where you think they got that idea? Right here!”
The two women look concerned, but let her continue to speak. “Look at that boy who went and shot all of those people in church, they gonna go and blame it on a Confederate flag. Ain’t no flag, it’s places like this here that don’t let us move forward! What good does it do to live in the past?” One of the women tried to interrupt her to make a point, but Ms Jacqueline never leaves much breathing room for anyone else to speak, 27 years of launching into the same speech. “You know what we oughta do? We ought to stop teaching about slavery and celebrate the good things black people are doing today. We have a black president! He wasn’t just elected by black folk! Celebrate our good things! Stop building museums that show the bad things. I mean, kids walk through there! All it teaches them to do is hate. Teaching about slavery, but not telling the truth that black people were here before slavery, not telling about the black man who built the capital (I assume she was talking about Benjamin Banneker).My great-great-great grandfather helped build this country! Why don’t the museum talk about that?”
The two women could see that there was no chance of having a discussion with Ms Jacqueline, and slowly found their way into exiting across the street. I waited for my chance to ask for an interview, taking in her protest area; boxes of flyers and handouts piled up on her bench and table, books, a sign that reads “Stop worshipping the dead”, a blue tarp tented over a box that contains her library, and a lifetime of accumulated memories. Finally, she finished the points of the speech she had been putting on to the two women who had walked away. She looked at me with a suspicious, steel gaze. I was my usual nervous self when I am faced with someone from 1988.
“Hi” I reached out to shake her hand, which she refused. “My name is Shawn, I am a teacher, and I write a blog about 1988. I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions about what happened to you here in 1988, and then put it up on our blog?”
“No, no, no. No, you can get whatever you want from me by going to my webpage!”
She handed me a stack of leaflets that dealt with the cost of the museum on Memphis and why the museum is destructive to children. The literature talks about how the museum flies in the face of Dr King’s message by taking a building that could have used to help the elderly and the homeless, and turning it into a place that encourages consumerism in the gift shop and gentrification of the neighborhood. It speaks about how the museum was not sanctioned by the King family and includes the story of Ms Smith’s eviction. I barely had time to read it before Ms Jacqueline began repeating the speech about teaching violence and the inappropriate nature of museums, perpetuating racism through learning about the past, and the lack of celebrations for the positive achievements of African Americans. She waved a dog eared book in the air. “This book, this man who wrote this book, is all about the need to teach civility. That is what we need to be teaching in our schools, not bringing kids to worship the dead!”
I had questions I wanted to ask like, “Isn’t it also important to have a place that lets school kids appreciate the positive outcomes of the struggle? “ “Here is a place where a horrific event occurred, that ripped apart society in 1968, and it has been turned into a center for education. Isn’t there something that can be said for that?” “How can you talk about what is inside when you have never stepped through the door?”
I never had the chance to ask anything, because for every pause she took, she was quickly lining up her next argument. She asked if we knew who George Washington was, and if we had ever read Washington’s rules for civility. “If only our kids were taught how to behave with decency towards each other, then we wouldn’t have these problems.”
She claimed there is no value in having a museum that only drags up old bad feelings. “Teachers lie anyway, talking about how slavery brought black people to America, when they should be talking about how black people were here before Columbus, how black people built the capital, how my great-great-great grandfather built this country. I mean, read Othello to know that black people were here first.”
I was really hoping for an opening to ask my questions, but by this time we were surrounded by a group of school kids and a man in a Michigan coat who began taking pictures of Ms Jackie. Without missing a beat she bounced back to beginning of the loop in her speech, which seemed like our cue to slip away, her voice ringing out behind us. “Have you ever read George Washington’s rules of civility?” I am pretty sure, my questions would not have registered anyway, as I am pretty sure once a crowd shows up she becomes fixed on hitting her points, the same routine for 27 years and 300 days. One crowd who stops to listen, brings another group of curious onlookers, and so on and so on. I am sure it has been this way every day for 27 years and 300 days.
Walking to the car, her words really started to play in my head. What if she was right? Wouldn’t it be more of a testament to Dr King and what he was doing in Memphis in 1968, to use the scene of tremendous sorrow and tragedy to provide relief for the poor and the elderly? Would Dr King be proud of them turning a profit in the gift shop from his death? Was my desire to see and venerate the place where Dr King was shot making me an accomplice to the gentrification of a neighborhood?
“The furniture isn’t even the actual furniture, they took the real stuff years ago” she had told the school kids and us.
Was I being manipulated by the museum into an engineered emotional response? Maybe I do teach far too much about a past of wrongs, and not enough about being civil. Ms Jacqueline Smith had really gotten into my head. This was hurtful to me because I had such a visceral response to the Civil Rights Museum. The interactive displays, and realism of the exhibits really painted an in depth picture of the struggle for equality. The way the museum is laid out, takes the visitor on the journey from West Africa to Memphis. I was moved to tears when I saw the Selma section and my breath was stolen in fear at the illuminated KKK hood and robe. Each and every section gave me new information to think about, and old information presented in a new light. I was given many more stories of people who were involved in the movement to take back to class. I was able to follow the story of Congressman John Lewis who is going to be one of our upcoming guests in our 1960’s class. Had my response to the museum been selfish and morbid? Had I been only feeding my interests while ignoring the plight of the people of the neighborhood who couldn’t afford the fifteen dollars to get in the door? Was my teaching ghoulish and inappropriate? I worried that I was too mentally weak to fight her arguments. After all, I had been teaching for 17 years, and she has been teaching for 27 years and 300 days. The woman from 1988 was slaying the student of 1988.
“What does it teach to show signs that say ‘colored only’? It teaches kids to keep living in that past.” Ms Jacqueline had said in her speech.
Life intervenes in strange and interesting patterns. Friday morning I attended a breakfast in which Dr Terrence Roberts, who had been one of the Little Rock Nine, was the keynote speaker. I cannot adequately put into quotes what Dr Roberts said, because it would not do the speech justice. He spoke of his experiences at Little Rock and throughout his life, and spoke of the need for students and teachers to present and absorb history by making it meaningful. He talked about being the owners of our own education. In my head I could imagine a conference where Dr Roberts and Ms Jacqueline had a debate over the need to understand history. Would Dr Roberts be able to interrupt the loop in her speech and get in some of his own thoughts? My mind went back and forth between Dr Roberts and Ms Jacqueline, who had taken up residence in my head.
Then, Dr Roberts said something that set my conscience free. He was relating a story of himself sitting down to write a book about teaching civility. I could not believe that the notion of “teaching civility” was popping up again. I couldn’t believe that Ms Jacqueline and Dr Roberts were on the same page. He said something to the effect of sitting down to write this book and playing his bible app through the book of Psalms. He said he was drawn to Psalms 28:3
“Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who do evil, who speak cordially with their neighbors but harbor malice in their hearts.”
Dr Roberts broke my mind free! If I am to make sense of what he was saying, it is this. One can teach people how to be civil, but unless hearts are changed, one can only change what’s on the surface. Teaching civility only hides deeper rage in a polite demeanor. One can only hide behind civility and a mask of kindness for so long before the corrosive rage and hatred that were never changed, rise to the surface. We cannot just force people to change, because we believe we are right and they are wrong. I often think this about political posting on Facebook, which I myself have been guilty of in the past. You can demand that people listen to you, bullying them and belittling them into silence, but you will not change them on the inside. Silencing someone is not progress. That is where a good history lesson is important! A good lesson can help you see the mistakes of the past, the wrong doings committed by humans against other humans, and help us to seek greater justice in our present. A good lesson can help us to appreciate the strengths of the past, while weighing out the mistakes.
The Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is a good, no a GREAT, history lesson. It is place that lends itself to contemplation and a reflection over how far we have come since the days that Dr Roberts was being beaten up and tortured by fellow students at Little Rock High. We gain a sense of hope and strength in dealing with the struggles that exist in the now, and perseverance for the ones that still line the path ahead. It is a place where we can experience the senseless death of Dr King, but be reminded of what his sacrifice on that balcony meant. Museums and historical opportunities don’t teach us violence, they teach us actual civility, that of a change in our own hearts by casting a mirror on our souls. Dr Roberts set my mind free that morning. He may never realize what motivated me to hug him upon meeting him. I am grateful for his words. I am also grateful to live in a nation that allows diversity of opinion and the ability to critically analyze all sides before we choose to make up our own mind. In that regard, I must also thank Ms Jacqueline Smith for teaching us that the road to justice is not immediate and it requires constant vigilance.
Further study work on Jacqueline Smith’s Protest
A one-woman protest at the Lorraine Motel By Hamil Harris
Side Trip -- Jacqueline Smith's personal, and private, crusade by Terry Dean
Jacqueline Smith’s protest site http://www.fulfillthedream.net/pages/mlk.jsmith1.html