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Jacqueline Smith: A Dream Denied             

(March 6, 2014)

I first met the ever-vigilante street protestor Jacqueline Smith during September 1977, at the historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I had accompanied my father to a meeting on nearby South Main Street and had soon become bored. I decided to begin exploring the surrounding neighborhood and as a white teenager in segregated Memphis, I was somewhat out of my element. I curiously wandered over to take a look at the run-down Lorraine Motel and Smith, the manager of the property, graciously invited me to take a look at Room 306. 

Smith showed me the room that Dr. Martin Luther King occupied on April 4, 1968, and gave me a brief history lesson on the Motel. As a budding historian, I was somewhat disappointed that the room had been stripped of its furnishings and turned into a memorial for the Lorraine’s owner’s deceased wife. I remember asking if the room’s telephone was original, which Smith stated it was. I then placed the phone’s receiver to my ear in some slight attempt to reconnect with the room’s history.

During the early eighties, I came back a couple of times to take photos and always made it a point to stop by the office to visit with the engaging Smith. She continued to serve as a proud ambassador to the history and legacy of Dr. King at the still functioning little motel. During that time period, the Lorraine mostly housed poor and homeless Memphians. 

Smith’s guardianship of the Lorraine soon came to an abrupt end as the City of Memphis and the non-profit museum foundation took over the property. She was very vocal in her opinion that Dr. King would rather spend the money on the poor than on an extravagant museum. In 1988, the city disagreed and had her forcibly removed by police officers from her barricaded residence at the motel.

The National Civil Rights Museum opened to the public on September 28, 1991, with Smith posted across the street urging visitors to boycott the museum. She has maintained a vigil on her street corner outpost ever since the eviction 26 years ago. Smith states publicly that the money used to fund the museum should have been used to transform the Lorraine into a homeless shelter, drug rehabilitation center and job-training facility. She firmly believes that is what Dr. King would have wanted and she continues her non-violent protest to bring attention to her message.

Over the years, I have stopped by occasionally to chat with Jacqueline Smith and contribute financially to her tireless struggle. Last week, I took my nephew and his wife to the museum for a visit. While they toured the gift shop (the 22 year-old museum is closed for a $27 million dollar renovation) I visited with Smith. “Dr. King wanted to die without a penny to his name. He wanted to give all his possessions to the poor,” emphatically stated Smith “does this museum do anything to help the poor, no. We live in one of the impoverished cities in American and yet we can spend $27 million dollars on changing the exterior of a building and adding a sign. This is not what Dr. King believed.”

Following the message of Jacqueline Smith, I once again had managed to visit the Lorraine and again had refused to enter either the building or its expensive gift shop.