The Bessie Smith Strut – was it “too big to fail?’ Not really, but it was too good to fail. And, too important also.
Last March, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield announced a plan to move the Bessie Smith Strut to the riverfront as a direct part of Riverbend. He cited “safety concerns.” Riverbend's management group, Friends of the Festival, declined to put on a Strut-like event. With the ensuing bickering and finger-pointing, it looked very much like the end of an event that had over 20 years of history. Irvin Overton, chairman of the Board of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center was quoted as saying that moving the Strut off of MLK to somewhere on the river front would be “Sort of like changing to a ‘generic brand’.”
Fortunately, concerned citizens in the MLK Neighborhood stepped up. So did some anonymous donors and the leadership of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Rosa Martin, director of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, worked tirelessly to organize a new plan that would keep the Bessie Smith Strut on MLK, once known as “The Big Nine” of Chattanooga when the street carried that number.
There were significant changes. Security was tightened with the use of fencing and three entry/exit points. For the first time, there was a modest admission charge (although Riverbend pins were honored). Further, there was more control upon vendors and beer distribution.
Monday, I had the pleasure of working with Gene Toney, one of the Strut volunteer coordinators. Our crew placed fence segments around the perimeter and bolted them together. We also set up tents and tables with chairs. We worked through the rain, always hoping that the skies would clear. Admittedly, it was a bit chaotic at first, but throughout the day more and more volunteers showed up to help and it all came together.
In my opinion, the 2012 Bessie Smith Strut was a huge success. The attendance numbers might have been down some, but there was still a good crowd. The music was great. People had fun. People enjoyed each other’s’ company. In a time where we sometimes focus far too much on our differences, the Strut proved that the best of Chattanooga comes out, as it did Monday night, when we enjoy our common bonds – music, food, and fellowship. This year, people came together and they worked together to get past differences and obstacles. It was the best of times.
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Thank you, Mr. Miller, and all of the other volunteers. I've got to say that my nature is to be afraid and the last Bessie Smith I attended prompted me to vow to never return. Well, I changed my mind when I read about the new deal and I don't care if the original flavor of the event has been a little stifled, I like to have fun without unbridled fear for my hide. The only scary thing inside the fences last Monday night was whether this dirty old man got caught eyeballing the help at Champy's. I tried to look at the television whenever they came by but I know I got caught. Absolutely killer chicken taboot.
Outside the fence was a little different. Just a little. A guy got steamed at a policeman and let go a bunch of serious cuss words and he became more that a little menacing for my fraidy-cat self. But the cop just quietly stood his ground and that leads me to another group of people to thank: the police men and women. What those people put up with on a daily basis is incomprehensible to me. I had no problem at all with their presence and was very happy to walk among them with an open and notorious container in my hand plain as day. They were courteous and they smiled even though I told the guy that there was also a 9mm among my keys and cell phone when the metal detector bleeped. The whole security thing was just fine with me.
A very big, special thank you to all involved in the 2012 Strut. I had a totally good time.