Friday, August 19, 2005

The Resistance

Opponents of transforming the downtown parks recoup and regroup.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 19, 2005 at 4:00 AM

On Monday, defenders of the status quo were out in force downtown in front of Confederate Park, putting their best face forward, toting not Rebel flags but huge cardboard banners saying, "SAVE OUR HISTORIC PARKS." In the manner of high-schoolers doing a car wash, they waved at passing Front Street motorists, who honked back in solidarity.

It was a decided contrast to the ragtag look of Saturday, when a handful of resisters to name-change proposals showed up in the park, most of them sporting vintage Confederate paraphernalia.

Where had Monday's mainstream-style demonstrators been on the weekend, when the Rev. Al Sharpton and his local supporters had downtown bragging rights more or less to themselves? "We were asked to stay away, and we did," said one of them, lawyer D. Jack Smith - referring apparently to an advisory to that effect from the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization or perhaps one from the ad hoc "Save Our Historic Parks" movement itself.

Smith was an interesting case. In 1967, while a member of the state legislature, he had sponsored a bill striking down the old "Scopes law," the notorious statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's schools. Only last month, on the 80th anniversary of the epic legal battle pitting William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow against each other, Smith had been invited to Dayton, site of the Scopes trial, and honored for his efforts in erasing what had long since come to be seen as a stain on the state's record.

Why was he now defending a symbolism which some clearly regard as an equally ugly blemish?

"It's entirely different," Smith said. "History is real. This is factual, a part of Memphis. It gives us character. We look back as much as we look forward - in all parts of the country. It's where we came from."

The anti-evolution law was otherwise, he argued, "a mistake from the start," or, as he said, supplying the formal legalese, "ab initio." The statute which had bagged science teacher John Scopes had been "an attempt to impose a religious view on everybody, against all our American principles."

The military heroes of the Confederacy, on the other hand, had been "people fighting for their homes as much as anything else." Smith, who numbers three warriors for the Southern cause "and one Confederate judge" among his antecedents, summed it up this way: "There was that famous quote. Someone was asked, 'Why are you shooting it up?' And he answered, 'Because you're here. You're in our home.'"

These days, of course, Memphis is home to an African-American majority, and, in the long run, the attitude of that majority is likely to prevail in questions like the naming of parks and the way in which the old Confederacy and its exemplars should be regarded.

At this stage, that attitude isn't all that easy to divine. The Sharpton rally at Forrest Park had attracted a crowd estimated at 250 - a respectable but not overwhelming number. Mixed among the true believers had been a generous collection of media and curiosity seekers, and most of the heavy hitters among local black politicians had kept their distance. One African-American mayor, A C Wharton, was nowhere to be seen, and the other, Willie Herenton, had formally repudiated the gathering. Like Smith, Herenton had given his imprimatur to the old Confederate emblems as representing "history."

And there was an ordinary lay sense to that term. One of the onlookers at Confederate Park on Monday was housekeeper Regina Carroll, who sat on a bus-stop bench in front of the park, waiting on her ride. She too was a black Memphian, and her reckoning of things was entirely pragmatic. "This park has been named what it is for so long that, if they changed the name, I probably wouldn't be able to find it." She reflected further: "Just like they changed the name of Memphis State, but I still call it Memphis State."

For the time being, the state of things in Memphis is unlikely to change as fast or as far as the Sharpton rally organizers - Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey; his brother, Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey; and the Rev. La Simba Gray - would like. There is a reason why people refer to the "weight of tradition." It is something as tangible as granite or bronze and as hard to move without elaborate or heavy machinery - which, in this case, means the engine of a galvanized public opinion, so far dormant, though some detect the beginnings of a rumble.

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