Museum Politics 

The struggle over control of the Lorraine Motel site reflects a dilemma in the black community.

Not all the politics going on just now is electoral. Some of it has to do with fundamental realignments in the body politic itself. A case in point: the escalating furor in Memphis' African-American community over the future of the National Civil Rights Museum.

At issue is whether the museum continues to be a publicly funded institution or a private one supported by corporate donations, fund-raising drives, and special programs. Now that the state's initial commitment has ended with the retirement of $5 million in construction bonds, the current board of what is officially called the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation has the option to buy the property for the nominal turn-over price of $1.

A number of community activists, with Circuit Court judge D'Army Bailey, the museum's founder and former president, in the vanguard, are up in arms over the prospect — seeing such a transfer of authority as a "sell-out" to white-dominated corporate interests.

All of that boiled over in a forum held Monday night at the Beale Street headquarters of the public workers' union AFSCME.

Although D'Army Bailey was the soul of discretion at the forum, speaking only to clarify technical points, sympathizers and relatives thundered against the would-be privatizers, exalting museum founder Bailey as a martyr in the process.

At least one African-American state legislator came under attack, as did such venerable figures in Memphis civil rights history as Maxine Smith and Benjamin Hooks.

After listening to more than an hour's worth of passionate rhetoric in favor of continued state control of the museum, state representative Gary Rowe attempted to change the subject to various self-help stratagems that he said were available to members of the Memphis African-American community.

Rowe cited as an example some $30,000 raised by his own Black United Fund of Tennessee and went on to say, "I'm willing to put my money on the table." Speaking generically of the Tennessee General Assembly and state government at large, Rowe said, "They don't respect us because we're always asking for something. We're always begging."

Rowe then left the meeting and the building and, though his ears may well have been burning, was spared direct knowledge of the volatile reaction to his words.

State representative Joe Towns, who moderated the meeting, took issue with Rowe's sentiments, reminding members of the audience they were taxpayers and saying, "You don't have to beg for your dollars."

That was just a warm-up for some of the firebrand rhetoric to come. Local radio personality Harold "The Navigator" Moore launched into a philippic against board members as "honchoes, black and white" whose primary loyalty was to corporations, not "the people." Moore said he had marched with Dr. King just before his 1968 assassination at the Lorraine Motel site itself and went on to say: "I was there when D'Army Bailey was assassinated as chairman of the Civil Rights Museum."

That reference was to a rebellion by a board majority against Bailey, deposing him as chairman not long after the museum was opened to much national fanfare in 1991. The Rev. Hooks took his place after the coup, which Bailey and many others attributed to influential board member Pitt Hyde, CEO of AutoZone.

Rising to speak in Moore's wake was D'Army Bailey's nephew Jay Bailey, a lawyer active in the burgeoning "community control" movement.

Jay Bailey escalated the rhetoric further, reciting the names of current board members and pointedly referring to Smith and Hooks, both former luminaries of the NAACP, as black leaders who had "historically been controlled by corporations."

A few speakers later, blogger Thaddeus Matthews ratcheted up the attack even further, saying of Rowe, "He works for us. He should be taking the people's agenda to Nashville."

Matthews said, "If the Lorraine Motel is our Calvary, then we may have to fight for it" against adversaries that include "black folks selling us out." Rowe, he said, was "another sell-out Negro" concerned, among other things, with protecting the interests of his neighbor, longtime museum director Beverly Robertson.

A bemused and noncommittal spectator through all of this was Dale Sims, Tennessee's state treasurer and a member of the state Building Commission, the high-level body that will make a decision whether the museum should continue to receive state funding or be turned over to the foundation board.

What the commission can't decide is the root issue here: Who speaks for the black community — and its legacy? Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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