July 2, 2018, Memphis-
From the time I was a nine-year-old, trying my best to vicariously understand why Black people were struggling for the same rights my parents seemed to have, I have been fascinated by people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer. Rosa Parks and her story came a bit later to my consciousness, when I was in high school, and the works of Langston Hughes were part of our tenth grade English curriculum.
The murders of Emmett Till, the children in the Birmingham church bombing, the Civil Rights workers in both Alabama and Mississippi, Medgar Evers- all hit me hard. I remember my Dad being pissed about the assassination of Malcolm X- “He was just starting to be reasonable”. It struck me that maybe that dialogue with White America was what got Malcolm killed; that maybe the powers that be don’t want the common folk to get along. His death turned me from Goldwater youth to angry leftist radical. The common denominator, for both alt-Right and Far Left seems to be the sense that the poor are just fodder-for those with money to burn. 1968 just added gasoline to my fire.
Time has made me recognize the complexity of the whole ball of wax. I remain committed to a solid implementation of social justice, though, and visiting the National Civil Rights Museum brought me to my knees, in silent, shaking tears.
Martin Luther King, Jr, indeed made it to the mountain top. While his last physical gaze was at the eastern edge of downtown Memphis, his spiritual gaze saw the heights of recovery from a deeply-embedded misogyny, from a dalliance with classism and Marxism and from narrow focus on the cause of Black folk. He spoke of, and was moving towards, leaving no one out: Opposition to the Vietnam War was a part of his new credo, but so was the plight of hardscrabble farmers and miners in Appalachia and the Ozarks. Forging ties with La Raza Unida and Native American activists was a rising tide, but so was listening to the children of European immigrants who were living increasingly precarious lives, in poor urban neighbourhoods and rural slums, alike.
So, my morning was focused, in three museums in and around Lorraine Motel.
This establishment had been one of a relative handful of inns, across the country, where African-Americans could stay in safety, whilst traveling.
In the main hall, there are replicas of key episodes in the Civil Rights struggle. Below, is a depiction of Rosa Parks, taking her rightful place on a Montgomery bus.
This credo has been, to varying extents, followed by the greatest of those who have sought to bring about meaningful change.
Those kids were my age, or younger, and that this did not matter to the bombers will forever burn in my heart.
These two bedroom photos show the room occupied by Dr. King (top) and by one of his top aides(bottom).
This museum, across the street from the Lorraine, features two floors that exhibit details and archives of the assassination and the investigation into James Earl Ray and his suspected associates. The killings of other key figures of the Civil Rights Era are also examined here.
My evolution, as a compassionate soul, is far from finished. Being a “woke white man” is a worthy goal, but I still feel a bit drowsy. This has nothing to do with my visiting places associated with the Confederacy or pondering conservative statements: One must know what the “other side” thinks, and why, if there is to be a lasting peace in society, and in the world.
Lastly, before heading to the musically significant Beale Street, I stopped for a late lunch at one of Memphis’ oldest eateries. The Arcade has been around since 1959. The crew definitely made me feel at home, at the counter. I’ll be back again.