Survival of the Strut

Survival of the Strut

April 28th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center's announcement this week that the Bessie Smith Strut will be held again this June at its usual place and usual date on Martin Luther Boulevard is not just a victory for supporters of the annual street bash. It's a larger victory for the city -- a triumph of hope over fear, of interracial unity and cultural sensitivity over cultural myopia and brute political force.

The struggle to keep the Strut alive and at home, to be sure, may now be measured by some by its success this June. Mayor Ron Littlefield raised that bar when he suddenly proposed just a month ago to move or cancel the Strut over concern for public safety from the possibility of gang violence, and then imposed unprecedented criteria to allow it to go forward.

But perfect safety would be an unfair measure: No public event can guarantee that.

What is more noteworthy, and of larger importance in the community, is the spirit and perseverance of supporters who stood up for the Strut and worked to keep it alive, and the resonance that effort elicited across the city.

Supporters were moved by personal values in behalf of cultural unity, community tradition and the worthiness of a fun-filled celebration of blues queen Bessie Smith, who rose from humble beginnings here to become a national star and then an international icon for one of this nation's most celebrated musical traditions.

The Strut needed to be staged on Martin Luther Boulevard, the street that was long the epicenter of this city's black community. That's where it has been held since the city inaugurated the Riverbend festival 30 years ago, and made the decision to leave the riverfront silent and shift the festival on its Monday night to its home street.

The changes occasioned this year by the mayor's conditions shift significant responsibility and new duties to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and its board. Board members have agreed to temporarily erect a fenced perimeter for the Strut site behind the buildings on M.L. King Boulevard. That will route Strut attendees through three gates, and require a modest gate fee. A generous anonymous donor has agreed to help purchase liability insurance for the event, and city and county police will continue to provide security.

Friends of the Festival, the organization that has customarily organized the bands and sound stages, will continue to handle that work. The M.L. King Merchants Association will be responsible for vendor services.

The perceived need for such changes, of course, could and should have been raised and resolved before the mayor unilaterally decided to declare that the Strut would be moved to the Riverbend venue on the riverfront. That would have avoided the controversy that ensued, and some needlessly bad publicity for the city.

A successful, safe and fun Strut will be the best antidote to the fear raised by the mayor, and the most fitting tribute to Bessie Smith, and to those who join hands to keep the Strut alive.