How do we balance the desire for tales of exceptional accomplishment with the need for painful doses of reality? How hard do we work to remember our past or to forget it? These are some of the questions that Jonathan Scott Holloway addresses in Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940, an exploration of race memory from the dawn of the modern civil rights era to the present. Relying on social science, documentary film, dance, popular literature, museums, memoir, and the tourism trade, Holloway explores the stories black Americans have told about their past and why these stories are vital to understanding a modern black identity. In the process, he asks much larger questions about the value of history and facts when memories do violence to both.
We welcome a guest post from Holloway marking the recent 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Here, Holloway offers a new perspective on our memories of the civil rights movement, challenging us to consider the smaller, more common—but less told—stories.
As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, most commentary focuses on the uplifting messages of hope we all find in the speech’s closing paragraphs. Some of the better-informed analysts ask their audiences to pay attention to the earlier passages in the speech where King declares that the nation is morally bankrupt and that its history is littered with promissory notes marked “insufficient funds.” There’s no great mystery as to why most prefer to focus on the hopeful aspects of King’s speech, but keeping a gauzy, soft focus on King’s worldview frees us from a serious consideration of the histories of people and places that are part of a much more complicated narrative of this country’s long freedom struggle.
Take, for example, the history behind the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) in Memphis, Tennessee, and its solitary protestor.
The NCRM is built on the site of the Lorraine Hotel, where King was assassinated in June 1968. In the decades after King’s murder, the Lorraine became caught in a downward financial spiral, fueled in part by the increased opportunities that black travelers could enjoy in a desegregated tourist landscape. In the mid-1980s, the hotel, then a low-income boardinghouse, was purchased so that it could be converted into a civil rights museum that simultaneously honored King and took a broader look at our nation’s civil rights struggles. This plan, however, did not go as smoothly as the new owners anticipated.
Jacqueline Smith, a longtime resident of the boardinghouse, refused to leave the building. Smith stayed in her room after other residents had moved out, after a court order declared she needed to vacate, and after her water and heat were shut off. Finally, on March 2, 1988, two months into her illegal occupancy, four deputies carried her and her belongings out to the curb.
When she first announced in January that she would not leave despite the court order, Smith said that “Dr. King would have wanted me to stay here. He said he didn’t want any memorial, but he wanted to help the poor.” On the morning of her eviction Smith sat on the sidewalk among her belongings and refused to leave. More than two years later, Smith was in the same spot when another court order forced her to move. This time she was accused of trespassing on a construction site. After she ignored the order, her possessions were placed in the street, and she was moved, while sitting in her lawn chair, to the sidewalk opposite the museum. When asked by a reporter why she was opposed to the museum, Smith reasserted her sense that King wanted to serve the poor—and that is exactly what the Lorraine was doing until it was closed and she was evicted. For Smith, the Lorraine—and King’s legacy—were being desecrated: “This sacred ground is being exploited.”
More than twenty years have passed since this second forced move, and Jacqueline Smith is still there.
Smith maintains this protest vigil, urging visitors approaching the museum not to go inside. The museum and the neighborhood gentrification that has accompanied it, she avers, have destroyed the area by making it unaffordable to longtime residents like herself. The whole neighborhood was now reserved for tourists; it was turning into Disneyland.
With one exception, the museum does not recognize Smith or her protest. Instead it focuses its energy on the seriousness and integrity of its educational work, equally determined to honor King and his legacy and to tell the larger story of civil and human rights struggles in the United States and beyond. On the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the NCRM website one can find the museum’s sole acknowledgement of the unusual vigil being held across the street from the building’s entrance: “Who is the protestor outside? Her name is Jacqueline Smith and she has protested the museum since ground was broken in 1987—though she has never been inside the museum.”
Even though the museum recognizes Smith’s protest, if only barely, her protest tells us something valuable about the production of history and the sanctification of certain experiences over others. Here, a single person with a particular set of memories and a determination to remember a figure of such importance as King in a specific way finds herself facing an institution with a public commitment to remembrance that has become her own horror.
In this season of commemoration we would all do well to think about those smaller histories that are also part of the civil rights movement and its legacies: the people whose names we don’t know but who lost their jobs for signing petitions or registering to vote; the people who were mortally afraid to join a march but who donated money they could not afford to give so that others could post bail; the people who continued to challenge local political, social, and economic systems of denial after the noted leaders left town; and the people who were simply trying to live what they took to be King’s dream but lacked the resources to make that dream a reality.
Jonathan Scott Holloway is professor of history, African American studies, and American studies at Yale University. Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940 is his fourth book.