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Gary Younge
Thieves of Black History

If Beale Street could talk, as James Baldwin famously imagined, then somewhere around Memphis’s South Fourth Street it would let out an agonizing cry. Facing east, the garish neon commodification of the blues stands behind you–a trap for tourists and an insult to the legacy of a great musical tradition. Commerce here is thriving from a culture it doesn’t respect. Ahead sprawls the desolation and poverty of the communities that gave blues its meaning and to whom the blues returned some dignity.

A block away at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center, around eighty people have gathered to prevent the pilfering of yet more local black heritage. Twenty years ago, the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, was turned into a National Civil Rights Museum. The chair of the executive committee of its board, J.R. "Pitt" Hyde III, is a wealthy white Republican. Charged with safeguarding a vital landmark in the nation’s racial history, Hyde lobbied for the defeat of Harold Ford Jr.’s bid for the vacant Senate seat from Tennessee in what was widely regarded as the most racist campaign of the 2006 election. While Hyde has been representing the civil rights museum, the company he founded, AutoZone, has been embroiled in a longstanding EEOC racial discrimination lawsuit.

The board, on which blacks are a minority, is packed with those who dedicate their lives not to civil rights but to corporate profits. And they know how to do business. Recently the board discussed exercising an option to buy the museum building from the State of Tennessee, which owns it, for $1. (Apparently they never made a formal offer, as they knew it would be rejected.) Black history on sale at bargain prices.

For some, the moral price of surrendering such a crucial site to big money was too high. Community activists have been fighting back, battling not only for control of a building but the stewardship of history. "No race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength," wrote Martiniquan poet and activist Aimé Césaire. "There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory." But who gets which place and what stories they hear when they get there is determined by power, not happenstance.

The struggle over the future of the Lorraine Motel highlights three crucial developments in the nearly forty years since King was assassinated. First, it demonstrates how much of the civil rights agenda remains to be accomplished. King had been in Memphis campaigning for better pay and conditions for striking sanitation workers. "In the past in the civil rights movement, we have been dealing with segregation and all of its humiliation; we’ve been dealing with the political problem of the denial of the right to vote," he said ten days before he died. "I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem."

Hyde and the corporate agenda he represents remain at the core of that "problem," which keeps one in four Memphis residents (who are mostly black) below the poverty line.

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