Leaders from the black community and M.L. King neighborhood are outraged at the sudden decision to move the annual Bessie Smith Strut to inside the Riverbend Festival area on the Riverfront.
James Mapp called it "racism" and questioned why community leaders directly affected by the move had to read about it in the media.
Mapp, Pastor Kevin Adams from Olivet Baptist and Pastor Jeffrey Wilson with the Hamilton County School Board, along with other local leaders, were called Wednesday about attending a Thursday morning meeting in the mayor's office, where they were told of the plans without an opportunity to collaborate on alternative solutions, Mapp said.
Mayor Ron Littlefield said a leak to the media prevented his office from being able to meet with leaders first.
"I was not surprised but not pleased that the word got out before I had the chance to talk directly with those who are most affected," Mayor Littlefield said during a Thursday morning press conference.
Littlefield said the primary reason for the changes are safety and security.
"Moving the strut from M.L. King Boulevard to the Riverfront is primarily for safety reasons, but from a positive standpoint, we are looking for ways to actually grow the Bessie Smith blues experience into something that incorporates a whole evening and hopefully becomes what the strut was when it started out, which is a big party where everybody comes ... all colors and all types of people. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has just become increasingly not that kind of experience," Littlefield said.
Wilson said he thought the decision was insulting.
"I don't think you can have a Bessie Smith Strut, with a name associated with an African-American, and put it in a place where she would not have gone and to some degree would not have been allowed to go during her time. It is a slap in the face. It changes the whole dynamic," Wilson said.
Although each of the black leaders expressed concern for the vendors who rely on the large crowds at the annual event, Littlefield said he didn't think the event's economic impact has been very great.
"I've been working with the strut since it began. There are very few retail businesses on M.L. King that are related to the strut any more. It is a very different environment. The strut has not been in recent years the major mover for the economy on M.L. King, as it was when it first started," he said.
Decisions have yet to be made about whether or not there will be a charge to attend the event on the river, which will now be called the Bessie Smith Celebration. However, Capt. David Roddy—who oversees local law enforcement efforts at Riverbend—said having limited access will improve the event's security.
"With a paid admission, whether it is a pin or an armband ... that is a level of control and security. What that gives us is the ability to ... encounter individuals who are causing problems, disorders, breaking the law, whatever it is, we have the ability to come up and say, 'Please stop what you're doing, or we're going to take your pin.' That solves about 99 percent of our problems," Roddy said.
With just more than two months until the Riverbend Festival begins, Littlefield said he thinks there is plenty of time for Friends of the Festival to make adjustments and present a successful "strut" on the river.
"Next year, given the fact that we're going in this direction instead of continuing to try to force a large party into a limited, uncontrollable area, we can build the Bessie Smith blues experience into a larger event that goes on after dark. We couldn't go after dark simply because of the environment we were working with on M.L. King," Littlefield said.
Updated @ 3:43 p.m. on 03/29/12 to correct a typographical error.