As you’ve gathered, I’m in Memphis this week. I’ve been doing research for the new short fiction collection, the working title of which is Bayou NonStandard Time (that is definitely going to change).
Anyway, itineraries have changed on the fly more than once during this trip, with things shifting in and out of priority and sometimes off the list altogether depending on circumstances, weather, and more.
Yesterday afternoon, I shifted priorities once again and visited the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s located at the Lorraine Motel, 450 Mulberry Street.
Does that location ring any bells with you? Perhaps it should.
It’s where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.
So. I drove from downtown Memphis, which is pretty nice and thriving (despite the fact that Greater Memphis has the worst poverty rate in the nation, at nearly 20 percent), to the neighborhood where one might find one of the hotels in Memphis that catered to people of color … and the neighborhood was definitely less nice and thriving. I have no doubt that it was much the same in the 1960s.
The museum has two buildings: the Lorraine Motel building, and another one located across the street. You start in the Lorraine Motel building, moving through slavery (including a galley that gives you a chance to see how little space there was for the people in the ships) and up through the Civil Rights Era. You can get on the bus with Rosa Parks (literally), be part of the sanitation workers’ strike … it’s really interactive.
One of the exhibits allows you to be part of a lunch counter sit-in. I don’t know how they did it with this statue, but the man looking at me as I sat there conveyed so much hatred … I can only imagine what it must have been like for the brave people who came to these segregated luncheonettes and faced down actual human beings. The sense of what it must be like to be hated for the color of your skin was so enlightening for me, and it only became more palpable as I walked through the museum.
I spent a lot of time choking back tears … which I was no longer able to do once I reached the exhibit for rooms 306 and 307. The balcony at room 306 is where Dr. King was murdered.
Honestly, by the time I got to that point, I was so emotionally wrung out that I didn’t have the mental energy to go to the second building and so I drove back to my motel. I had so much to think about.
On the news here in Memphis last night, they talked about the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest from one of its parks (the City Council voted to do so in 2015, but progress has been slow due to state requirements). The mayor had received a letter threatening war if the statue were taken down. It is quite apparent that the undercurrent of racism remains in this region, despite (or maybe even because of, on some levels) the advances in civil rights for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Rep. John Lewis, and so many others worked so hard to obtain — many people losing their lives.
To say that the experience is sobering is to greatly understate how I felt at the end of the day.
(Photos taken by the author.)