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VOL. 132 | NO. 48 | Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Clayborn Temple Restoration Approaches One-Year Mark

By Bill Dries

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Box lunches and stained glass were the order of the day as developers of Clayborn Temple hosted the Rotary Club last month at the landmark Downtown church.

“This place is sacred because of what happened here,” says Rob Thompson, one of the two developers working to restore Clayborn Temple. Thompson and Frank Smith continue working toward a full restoration of the church that was a landmark in the city’s civil rights movement.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

It was one in a series of events Frank Smith and Rob Thompson have hosted at the AME Church since they reopened its doors last October to explore uses for it and start a fuller renovation in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the spring of 2018.

With one more spring until the anniversary, Clayborn remains a work in progress with plywood floors, folding tables, exposed stone columns and a story forever linked to the spring 49 years ago.

“This place is sacred because of what happened here,” Thompson told a group of 100 Rotarians. He was standing next to a large screen with black-and-white photos from the spring of 1968 – sanitation workers holding signs reading “I Am A Man” and King locking arms with other somber men in suits, a troubled expression on his face as the march that began outside Clayborn Temple that afternoon disintegrated into violence.

“They would walk out the two front doors, twice a day, and walk down to Beale Street – walk up Beale to Main and take Main to City Hall,” Thompson said of the strikers.

The church was the starting point and rallying point for marches during the sanitation workers strike. It was also where those who participated in the marches gathered every spring to honor King’s memory in the years when the National Civil Rights Museum was still a working motel – the Lorraine Motel – with King’s room a small shrine.

By 1979, the interior of the church was deteriorating even as the march that started on the street outside it continued to draw large numbers of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – the union that the striking sanitation workers of 1968 belonged to.

Over still more time, Clayborn Temple was and still is sometimes confused with Mason Temple, the Church of God in Christ landmark where King gave his final speech – the “mountaintop speech” – the night before he was killed.

“Those places never would have happened … had it not been for the work that happened at Clayborn Temple,” Thompson said.

By the early 1990s, the Lorraine had become the National Civil Rights Museum and Clayborn Temple was boarded up in 1999.

“It was so scary,” Thompson said of the church’s condition.

Smith remembers how hard it was to get the title transfer, starting in 2015 and then doing basic work to make the church safe to walk into.

“You don’t think you will ever pull it off,” he said of the apprehension that followed those early steps from paperwork to getting an idea of what is needed to work toward a fuller restoration.

Smith also has other pursuits. He is part of the ownership group at Wiseacre Brewing Co. exploring a possible expansion and move to the Mid-South Coliseum for the larger brewery and taproom. Wiseacre has been in a due diligence phase since late last year to see if such a move makes sense for them and is feasible.

Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration said Tuesday, March 7, Wiseacre should have word on that for the city by the end of March.

Meanwhile, a wall at Clayborn Temple for people to write ideas for future uses of the church has been painted over at least once, with the ideas dutifully recorded before a new coat of white paint offers a new opportunity for new insights. A lot of suggestions call for Clayborn be used as some kind of music venue.

Thompson said if that’s part of a cultural or arts use, it might be a possibility. But just music – “The thing about that is it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Thompson said.

“We have a fiscal agent because we are not a nonprofit yet. The long-term plan is to have a combination of nonprofits to operate the space. And then we do anticipate trying to use historic preservation tax credits to help finance the cost of this,” he said. “We are still wrestling with how do we use this space – what’s the highest and best use of this space to be a blessing to all of Memphis.”

The city of Memphis and the UrbanArt Commission announced plans last month to construct “I Am A Man Plaza” next to the church, serving as a focal point for the 50th anniversary observances. The city and the commission have put out a call to artists for design ideas for the public art that will be a key feature on the plaza.

In January, the National Park Service awarded a $400,000 grant to the city’s Housing and Community Development division for the preservation of Clayborn Temple.

Both of those efforts are in addition to the $100,000 worth of basic improvements Smith and Thompson coordinated with Montgomery Martin Contractors to open the doors and hold basic events, including Sunday services of The Downtown Church.

That church found Clayborn Temple in a search for a new sanctuary, after it had to leave Central Station because of the station’s renovation into a hotel.

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