So this past November, Leslie and I took our family to see the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The Museum is filled with a history of the civil rights struggle from the emancipation of slavery, to the well-organized boycotts and sit-in’s of the 50’s and 60’s. And it ends in the actual hotel room where Dr. King was assassinated.
It is a Thin Space between Heaven and Earth.
In this museum, you can see the actual bus that Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on. You can see the leather portfolio that Arthur Shores smuggled Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out with. You can even see the gun that ended Dr. King’s life.
But across the street from the museum, you will see something else. There is a single protestor. Her name is Jacqueline Smith, and she has protested the museum without fail for the last 15 years. Since the museum was opened she has vocally spoken out to anyone who will listen.
Now, before you get the wrong idea, you need to know that Jacqueline Smith is an African-American who is all for Dr. King’s dream, and by no means is trying to desecrate his memory or his mission. But she knows what a lot of us don’t. She knows that when they first started the museum in 1987, the powers in charge had to clear out a lot of apartments to make space for the memorial. The problem was that these apartments were government housing. A lot of low income people lived there, and now they were out.
In order to honor a man who dedicated his life fighting for the underpriviledged, we kicked out the very people his life was oriented around helping.
Or at least that was Jacqueline Smith’s position.
I have done quite a few funerals in my ministry and one of the interesting things that I have noticed over the years is the way we talk about the deceased. After someone dies, they no longer can speak into what happens, and now all that is left is a memory. One that can be shaped and molded by those closest to them. Now I get that funerals are for those left behind. And that’s a good thing. Because I’ve had moments where I’ve thought, there is no way the deceased would really want ZZTop played at her funeral, that wasn’t her favorite band, she liked Lawrence Welk.
But here’s my point: we have an amazing capacity to turn people’s memory into something more manageable. Something a lot more like us.
Cornel West articulates this well when it comes to Dr. King. In a recent article about MLK, West points out that our version of Martin Luther King is kind of a Santa-Claus-ification of the real man. In his words, “we domesticate, disinfect, deodorise, sanitise, and make safe the prophetic words and witness of King. whereby we embrace a manageable, smiling, jolly fellow and abandon the man of history and his passionate call to a liberating love and a healing justice.”
In a recent article about Christianity and Ethics, it was pointed out how people use the memory of Dr. King to endorse certain platforms (ones that may even be valid) but are just not in line with who King was. One of the leaders of the United States Defense Department was cited as saying that were Dr. King alive today he would probably endorse the wars that we were in. This is not a commentary on these wars, it is a commentary on Dr. King.
This was the man who was one time asked by a reporter if he was worried that his stance on the Vietnam War might affect contributions to the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King’s response was brilliant:
“I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion…Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a moulder of consensus. On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?”
I know that this is probably unsettling to some readers, but that is precisely the point. Prophets are hard, but we need them, and we need to hear and wrestle with their words honestly.
Which brings me back to Jacqueline Smith. Here’s a lady who has protested a museum daily for almost 20 years. And while I disagree with her methods, I think I understand why she does it. Because she knows what a lot of us can forget. Dr. King wasn’t tapping into ideas that can easily be relegated to a museum. They aren’t static or sedentary. Dr. King was tapping into the very Gospel that is re-creating the entire world.
And so, in the words of the lone protestor, Jacqueline Smith:
“It’s time to stop worshipping the past. It’s time to start Living the Dream.”