Chattanooga's black leaders frustrated by plan to move Bessie Smith Strut

Chattanooga's black leaders frustrated by plan to move Bessie Smith Strut

March 30th, 2012 by Cliff Hightower and Barry Courter in News

Napoleon Williams, James Mapp, Kevin Adams and Jeffrey Wilson, from left, voice their disagreement with the city's decision to relocate the Bessie Smith Strut to the Riverbend site to improve security. Mayor Ron Littlefield held a brief news conference at Chattanooga's City Hall on Thursday morning to talk about the relocation.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: Is moving the Strut a good idea?


Here are some comments about the Strut from the Times Free Press' Facebook page:

Maybe now they should call it the "Safe for Jittery White People Bubba Stroll" or the Littlefield Dawdle. Another move toward mediocrity and the white-breadification of Chattanooga. -Steve Wild

Better to try and make things safer and upset people than to do nothing at all. I hate this, but I will stand by it if they keep it free for the sake of safety. -Rocky P

Move the Strut to the riverfront, change the name to celebration. Attendance will be low to none, then it will be canceled next year due to low turnout. Wow, and people wonder what they're doing. They know exactly what they're doing. - Ronald Bianchi

You finally got the mayor on board about the gang problem, now we have one and he has to protect people. From a protection standpoint, the river is easier to control. - David N. Bailey

The Strut always has made me wish that every day in Chattanooga could be what the Strut brought forth. ... unity in our city. How embarrassing that we have a city government that denies that possibility. - Dotti Hamilton

I don't see how moving it to a location where there is more supervision and changing the name is disrespectful. Kids need supervision and sadly so do a lot of adults because they get a few drinks in them and forget how to act. The name change now reflects what it should be ... a celebration, not "strut" to draw attention to yourself. - Cindy Camp Taylor

I don't think changing the name and moving the location is necessarily going to make it safer. I think the gang violence and crime problems need to be taken care of and then it won't matter where it is or what you call it. Get the gangs out of Chattanooga and we'll all feel safer about going downtown. - Erica Haile

Moving the Bessie Smith Strut to the Riverbend festival site is a sign that blacks are not really welcome in Chattanooga, some local black leaders say.

"I think there's a sense of unwelcomeness for the African-American community," said the Rev. Jeffrey Wilson, pastor of New United Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the Hamilton County school board. "There will be an outcry."

From pastors to businessman to elected government leaders, many in the black community expressed outrage Thursday over Mayor Ron Littlefield's announcement that the Strut would not only be leaving M.L. King Boulevard, where it has been held for 31 years, but also changing its name.

"Racism," said James Mapp, a past president of the local NAACP.

The Rev. Kevin Adams, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church on M.L. King Boulevard, said community leaders did not have any input about moving the Strut.

"We were handed a plan," said Adams, who added that he planned to go back to his church and tell congregation members and others "not to participate" in this year's festival.

One former board member for Friends of the Festival, which manages Riverbend and the Strut, said moving the Strut has been discussed for more than 20 years.

"It was actively talked about and I helped keep it from happening on my watch," said local black businessman Gerald Mason, who served on the executive committee in the late 1980s and '90s. "I think this is a cop-out and a travesty."


Littlefield held a news conference Thursday morning and said the Strut was being moved from M.L. King Boulevard to Riverbend because of public safety concerns and a hope to make the event even larger. It's new name will be the Bessie Smith Celebration, he said.

"The Strut will go on," Littlefield said. "The blues experience will go on."

But even as he was speaking, a movement on Facebook had started asking people to go to M.L. King Boulevard on the Strut's scheduled night of Monday, June 11. The event called "Occupy your favorite MLK establishment for Bessie Smith Strut night" had almost 500 people signed up to attend by 3 p.m. Thursday.

"The people will end up speaking on it," said Seth Champion, owner of Champy's Famous Fried Chicken on M.L. King Boulevard. "I think people will end up coming to MLK for their own Strut, so to speak."

Chip Baker, executive director of Friends of the Festival, said Thursday that everything is up in the air as far as how the Monday night of the festival will look, sound, cost and be run. Every detail, angle and possibility is being discussed, he said.

Mason said he believes the city is willingly serving as the scapegoat in the decision because some festival leaders have been looking to move the festival for years.

Mason said the topic of moving the Strut came up often when he was on the executive committee. He said Riverbend loses money on the Strut because the event doesn't charge admission and doesn't collect anything from the vendors who sell food and drinks.

"That's why they want to move it. This decision is mainly about money," he said. "Just call it what it is. Don't put it under gang violence or a safety thing."


On Thursday morning before the news conference, Littlefield called a group of community leaders to a meeting at City Hall. As many of them left, they expressed anger about not hearing of the Strut being moved until they saw it in the media Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

Councilman Andraé McGary, who represents the M.L. King district, came out of the meeting shaking his head and muttering in disgust that it was "unbelievable."

"The mayor said it was an opportunity to vent and that's what it was," McGary said. "The decision was already made. There was no conversation."

Capt. David Roddy, commander of the Special Operations Division with the Chattanooga Police Department, said the department felt it was necessary to move the event. Over three decades, the department has perfected security at the Riverbend festival, but never felt comfortable with the security at the Bessie Smith Strut. The move to Riverbend means more authority over attendees and their actions, he said.

"It's simply to draw back to a base we know we can control," he said.

Councilmen Russell Gilbert and Peter Murphy, who represent city minority districts, released a joint statement Thursday afternoon, saying they were shocked at the mayor's announcement.

"We believe there are no compelling reasons for the action to move the Bessie Smith Strut away from the Bessie Smith Cultural Center's front lawn, and none has been communicated to us to date," the statement read. "We have not had complaints communicated to us about the Bessie Smith Strut at anytime in this term of office."


Baker, who became executive director of Friends of the Festival in 1999, said the Strut is a topic of discussion by the board every year, but since he's been involved, the subject has always been safety issues.

Friends of the Festival has produced the Strut in past years solely through sponsorship money, he said. It receives no money from vendors or admissions, because no pin is required. Costs include staging, sound, power, staffing and talent, he said.

He has not looked at a cost analysis of just the Strut in several years, he said.

"We receive no money from it, but to me that has always been the beauty," Baker said. "I call it Christmas in June. We factor it into the overall cost of the festival, but hope to break even with sponsorship money on it."

He said he was surprised by the mayor's decision, but that Riverbend is a partner with the city, the police and the sheriff and will work with them on the decision.

He said he hasn't had an opportunity to discuss with his staff how making the move will work or even what to call the night. Things to be discussed and figured out include which stages will be used and if more acts will be added for that night, he said.

Other questions include: Will attendees need a pin? Will there be a special pin price for that night? Will traditional Strut vendors be allowed to sell from the festival's new Monday event and will they be charged?

"That is exactly the kind of stuff we have to determine," Baker said.


On Thursday afternoon, several business owners stood along the sidewalks of M.L. King Boulevard, talking to each other on the warm spring day. A lead topic of conversation was about moving the Bessie Smith Strut away from the very place they operate 365 days a year.

Victor Williams, co-owner of Memo's Chopped Weiners and Pit Barbecue, said he felt the move was a slight to the community. He said he could go down and rent a tent and sell his barbecue at Riverbend if he wanted, but he would also probably have to pay a fee.

"Why should I have to go down there and pay money when we have an established business?" he asked.

Robert Austin, owner of Malibu Lounge, said he doesn't understand snatching the event away from established Chattanooga businesses.

"We only have one day out of the nine days [of Riverbend]," he said. "It's not fair. We pay our taxes."

James Massengill, owner of Chattanooga Smokehouse, said he was disappointed. He opened his business almost three years ago on the day of the Strut and he said he takes the moving of the event personally.

"Now there's nothing to be done," he said. "It's not a Strut there on the river."

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