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Full Circle

Full Circle

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Anyone who has spent any time in downtown Memphis has probably chanced upon Jacqueline Smith, one of the most tenacious resistors in the history of civil protest. That's both appropriate and ironic, because as Chris Davis reminds us once again in this issue, the target of Smith's protest is none other than the National Civil Rights Museum itself.

Smith's argument is not with the idea of memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, site of the present-day museum. It is with the way in which that project of honoring the martyr, his memory, and his mission has been carried out. As she sees it, the money spent on constructing the current facilities on Mulberry Street might have been invested instead in some kind of project that could have preserved the historical life patterns on Mulberry rather than on a museum.

It's a point that's somewhat conceded by Judge D'Army Bailey, one of the museum's founders. Even making all due allowances for the grievances conceivably being nursed by Bailey, who was forced out as museum president some years ago by members still prominent on the museum's current board of directors, it is still striking that his point of view and Jacqueline Smith's, formerly as divergent as could be imagined, have come to rest on the same basic complaint, that of the museum's potential alienation from the human needs of the area surrounding it.

We have no intention of judging whether that complaint is well-founded or not. Clearly the National Civil Rights Museum has much to commend it, exactly as it is now constituted. It is not only a consistent attraction for visitors to Memphis, it is a nice (in the most nuanced sense of that word) counterpart to some of the bloody history that gave it birth.

Yet neither will we dismiss the protests being made by Smith or anyone else who can make a coherent case against the process of social paving-over which goes by the name of "gentrification." All of the nation's major cities have seen that process in the last few decades: As economic opportunity presents itself, the buildings in a depressed area are bought up, refurbished, and rented or sold to upscale businesses and residents. Meanwhile, the low-income residents who had been maintaining an existence in the area do not share in the good fortune. They are uprooted and forced to find habitation elsewhere.

If nothing else, Jacqueline Smith's enduring protest, whether wrongheaded or not, is a stimulus to all of us who believe in the goal of civil rights to make sure that we mean what we say when we espouse and honor the goals of Dr. Martin Luther King and the other martyrs of our time and place.

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