For the first time in more than 20 years, I won’t be walking down the middle of MLK Boulevard on a hot afternoon in June drinking $3 tall boys and gnawing on a barbecued turkey leg—at least not legally. For, in the infinite wisdom of the current administration, the “City” has decided that for my own safety I’d be better off on the riverfront where they can keep an eye on things a little better.
The Bessie Smith Strut, a beloved local tradition tolerated by Riverbend officials and the police for nearly three decades, is moving this year from its home on MLK to the safety of its step-parents’ festival grounds. And, like all Chattanoogans who consider the Strut to be one of the last—if not the only—truly multi-cultural events in town, I’m mad as hell about it. The Strut is a part of our city’s history that I just can’t let go.
For those who need the back-story, Bessie Smith was a blues singer who lived (albeit briefly) near Martin Luther King Boulevard (then called 9th Street) back in the early 1900s. She sang on the street corners for spare change, drank in the gutter and infamously fought with any man she was involved with at the time. Then like The Impressions, Samuel L. Jackson and Usher, she decided that Chattanooga had nothing else to offer colored folk and moved away to become famous. Since then however, we back here at home still cling to the farfetched notion that she “got her start” in Chattanooga and therefore named a blues festival (as well as a multicultural center) after her.
Traditionally, the Bessie Smith Strut has been a coming together of all races for an annual street party to celebrate diversity—or at least give whitey an excuse to safely see how the other half lives while pretending to slum it. It also gives the African-American community an opportunity to take us under their wing and show us a good time experiencing a culture far away from the bubble of private schools and country clubs.
Multiple races walk up and down the street together, sharing barbeque, cheap beer, live blues music and the entertainment of street preachers trying to save our hopelessly sinful souls. It’s one day a year when people from all walks of life mingle in MLK’s bars, restaurants and businesses (although they’re also open the other 364 days). But despite the irony of the situation, the Strut is just plain fun.
But it’s not for everyone, I’ll give you that. It’s not for the hateful or intolerant. It’s not for those who can’t stand hot pavement and cold beer. And it’s certainly not for the average Riverbend patron. If you still like Foreigner and/or the Goo Goo Dolls and are pumped about their appearances on this year’s Coca-Cola Stage, then the Strut is likely not for you.
Most of my friends who attend the Strut haven’t purchased a Riverbend pin in years, if ever. And they’re not alone. A WRCB-TV online poll recently reported that 66 percent of respondents said they weren’t going to Riverbend this year, and another 10 percent were undecided. That leaves a measly 24 percent who qualify to attend the new “Bessie Smith Blues Celebration” (or whatever it’s called), to be held behind the secure gates of the festival’s “pin-required” environment. Likely these are the same people who voted for Mayor Littlefield, the man behind the event’s move to the Riverbend Festival grounds.
I’m surprised a man in his position doesn’t see that moving the event away from MLK sends a message that Chattanooga Police perceivably don’t have the energy or manpower to control a linear street festival for three hours one afternoon a year. He also apparently doesn’t see that moving the festival away from the African-American community is another gentrified slap in the face to a race we already don’t celebrate enough (and who ironically voted for him). And, Littlefield doesn’t see the obvious visual difference between a turkey leg and a corn dog, the savory taste of a rib sandwich versus greasy chicken-on-a-stick, or the bold palette of a 24-ounce Colt 45 versus a watered down Michelob Ultra. He just doesn’t get it.
Despite an understaffed police force, seemingly unstoppable gang violence and outbreaks of mayhem each and every year, the Strut has occurred on MLK without question since I can remember. But wait a minute, so has Mardi Gras in New Orleans, St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah and New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Are we really saying that we know more about how to keep our citizens safe during a festival than those cities? Surely not. That would be ridiculously short-sighted and ignorant.
Chuck Crowder is a local writer and general man about town. His opinions are just that. Everything expressed is loosely based on fact and crap he hears people talking about. Take what you read with a grain of salt, but let it pepper your thoughts.