Don't kill the Bessie Smith Strut

Don't kill the Bessie Smith Strut

March 31st, 2012 in Opinion Times

Mayor Ron Littlefield emphasizes that his surprise and controversial decision to move the Bessie Smith Strut from Martin Luther King Boulevard to the Riverfront, where it can be staged in the more secure confines of the well-policed Riverbend perimeter, is being done to make it safe -- or safer.

Our fear is that such a mistaken move will kill the Strut by killing what it stood for: a symbolic, abiding effort not just to celebrate our cultural diversity and common heritage, but simply to share fun, funky, get-down times together in the African-American community's old Ninth Street neighborhood-- and to keep building on that.

Littlefield says his unilateral decision is not a surrender to the young black gangs whose increasingly frequent and frightening gun battles over turf could mar the Strut. Rather, he says, it's a recognition of the city's financial and moral liability for permitting a convenient venue for violence, and the moral responsibility to avoid that.

Yet it feels like a surrender to the fear of violence. It also reflects a seeming lack of determined effort to enlist help from black community leaders and neighborhood groups to ensure safety at the Strut; and just as importantly, to avoid the dismantling of the iconic cultural asset that the Bessie Smith Strut has become.

The planned shift of venue would impose other burdens of equity and access, as well. As a grand street party, the Strut has always been free to attendees and easily accessible to all comers. If that's part of its problem for the city, it's also part of its charm.

Putting it in the mix of Riverbend's gated controls would require a separate gate-fee at best, and an expensive pin at worst. The cost and wait at the gate, the transportation-and-parking drill, and the separation from its original venue would have other consequences. They would pose economic barriers for many long-time patrons, dampen the spontaneity that has always characterized the Strut, and jeopardize the financial opportunities of its traditional neighborhood vendors, who suddenly could face a stiff Riverbend permit fee.

Indeed, the whole idea of moving the Strut runs counter to its patrons, and to the reasons it's long been faithfully supported by its traditional philanthropic sponsors.

Then there's the psychic resistance. Shifting the venue from its traditional place along Martin Luther King Boulevard, and the Bessie Smith cultural center, reasonably strikes its patrons, and especially this city's black community, as a direct insult against the cultural benefit the Strut has long provided.

The Strut is approaching 30. It began in 1983, when philanthropist Jack Lupton rounded up funding for a novel, integrated community bash to celebrate the blues and our common heritage. Key to that was the venue -- the boulevard that was the cultural center for African-Americans, yet then a place most white Chattanoogans sped through in locked cars

The first Strut beckoned a smallish crowd, and ended up with a diverse gathering where people cheered musicians, jived and grooved, and joined together in a conga line.

The experiment not only worked -- it became a pillar of good times and good will. It helped build a stronger, more cohesive sense of our diverse community, and it fostered broad appreciation for the city's own legendary Bessie Smith, who came to be known around the nation, and abroad, as the Queen of the Blues.

The Bessie Smith Strut has for many years drawn tens of thousands of area residents -- on the free Monday night of Riverbend -- to roam Martin Luther King Boulevard from sound stage to sound stage for nearly half a mile, sharing barbecue, beer and great times. It would be a crying shame to lose it, and especially to lose it to a fear that could yet be defeated.