A dream that will not fade

Jacqueline Smith is black, proud and angry; she wants the Lorraine Motel to be her home again, not a shrine to Martin Luther King. Nick Hazlewood visited her in Memphis.

Nick Hazlewood
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:20

ON A sidewalk in downtown Memphis, Jacqueline Smith - a black woman with a deep respect and love of the late Dr Martin Luther King junior - is urging a coachload of British tourists to stay away from the museum which commememorates his life and work.

As she speaks to them, in sight of the infamous motel balcony where, on 4 April 1968, Dr King was shot dead, she gestures to the sofa, momentarily empty, which is her home. Once, Miss smith had another home - a simple room in the Lorraine Motel, where 30 years ago this week, Dr King lost his life. Then the idea was born which led to the conversion of the motel into the National Civil Right Museum - and Miss Smith, like the other tenants, was evicted from her home.

It was in January 1988 that the motel was closed down so that work could begin on converting it into the $9 million museum. Two months later Jacqueline Smith was forcibly removed from her room by the Sheriff's office and dumped on the sidewalk with her furniture.

That was more than 3,700 days ago and she has lived here ever since.

Now she tells the eager sightseers of her life. As she poses for photos they agree to abandon their visit and turn their backs on the motel.

"They asked me 'what are you going to do now?' And so I said I'm going to stay right here where you put me," recalls the 46-year-old who is heavily wrapped in a blue lumberjack jacket against the chill of a cold Memphis spring.

"I had lived in this motel for 11 years - losing my home was bad enough, but turning it into a tourist attraction was a disgrace to the memory of Dr King." A calm indignation rises in her voice. "This place has no association with civil rights, other than it is where he was killed". Instead she believes that the money used to turn the dilapidated old motel into the impressive building it now appears should have been used to house some of Memphis's many homeless or build a health clinic for the poor.

Jacqueline has sat outside the motel through ice storms, snow and rain, bedding down in a sleeping bag and sheltering from the harsher extremes of the weather under a tarpaulin. But it hasn't been only the elements that have been threatening. In 1988 there was a serious attempt to kill her. At that time she had successfully held up building work by erecting a tent over an electrical outlet needed by the construction workers. One right she was lying half asleep when she heard a truck pull up outside.

"Somebody shouted 'Bye bye Jackie' and this truck rammed into my tent on the sidewalk. It was one of those trucks with the big wheels, it ran right up and smacked into us."

The truck missed Jacqueline, but ran over the arm of a companion. He wasn't seriously hurt but Jacqueline is convinced that it was a real attempt to get rid of the nuisance that she had become.

And she has become a nuisance. Alongside the sofa, large banners demand that visitors boycott the National Civil "Wrongs" Museum. A small table is covered in books, a bible, a box for donations and one of the many files she has of press cuttings. A supermarket cart is full of filed letters from well-wishers around the world.

Cars go by and hoot their horns, policemen wave at her and a passing construction worker gives a gentle tug on her hand and says "Hi, how're you doing?"

"There's no way that I could do this alone without people's support", she admits. "People come by here to see if I'm okay, see if I need anything. I don't work, I don't have a job, I just get by on the kindness of the people who support what I do".

The Lorraine is in a neighbourhood that not even the bravest of souls would want to spend a night: tucked away on a street of cracked paving stones and sunken tarmac, you reach it by crossing a couple of glass strewn parking lots. Miss Smith, however, is a survivor: "I mean I'm still here. I sleep here at right and nobody has bothered me. All around there's been murders, rapes, robberies, all over the United States. I just thank God that I've been allowed to do what I do." And what she does is cause embarrassment. One former director of the museum admitted that Miss Smith had had a major effect on attendance figures. When former US President Jimmy Carter visited the museum in 1991 he refused to enter the museum and instead stood for photographs with Jacqueline.

However, three years later, the museum offered Carter an award for his civil rights work and he took it. He went to see Miss Smith again, but she angrily refused to shake hands with him. Miss Smith's protest has backed the civil rights museum into a difficult corner, as Leila Boyd, the museum's membership coordinator, acknowledges. "Certainly she has an effect, but Jacqueline is exercising her civil rights. Given the nature of the museum we do respect what she is doing."

The authorities have invited Miss Smith to take a look around the facility, but she has yet to take up the offer. It also seeks to address some of her complaints. "Philosophically we must agree that the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised should be at the forefront of our consciences," says Miss Boyd. "However, there are about 1,000 abandoned buildings in Memphis and any one of them could be used for this purpose. This is a museum because of what it is and where it is. This museum serves a unique purpose that could not be placed in just any building."

As for Jacqueline Smith, her fight goes on. "I'm like any other human being. I want shelter and and comfort, but I've chosen to do this to get people to focus on Martin Luther King's true meaning and to get them to remember Dr King through their actions and their deeds. I don't see no time in the future that I would give up this protest unless something changes at the Lorraine Motel and by that I mean that it's converted into a facility to help the poor and take care of the people King cared for.

"Until that day I'm going to continue to be here."

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