Monday, June 26, 2017

Civil Rights Tour: Memphis - National Civil Rights Museum

On the second morning of our trip, we crossed the Mississippi River into Memphis. Huge rivers and massive bridges are endlessly fascinating to us prairie folk!
We drove through the old part of Memphis, not far from the river, looking for the National Civil Rights Museum. Suddenly, there it was, right in front of us. As if time had not moved from 1968.
I wasn't born until four year after Dr. King's death, but I instantly recognized this image. The Lorraine Motel. The place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.
Right there, on the balcony outside of room 306.
The Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is beautifully designed and incredibly powerful. It is crammed full of photos, images, quotes, artifacts, voice recordings, and incredibly detailed statues. It is so moving, so real, that I fought tears through the entire museum.

The very first display showed African men shackled in a slave ship. You could hear the sounds of the ship creaking and waves lapping and the groans of the men. It was hard, painful, to see. I started wiping tears there and never really stopped.
 Throughout the museum there were quotes from Civil Rights workers that continue to ring painfully true today. Those particular battles are over, but the fight continues. This is both inspiring and depressing.
 There was a period Montgomery city bus, with Rosa Parks sitting bravely inside. There was a room about the Montgomery bus boycott and the determined people who walked to work and church and school for a year, no matter the time and energy it cost them. You could see the weariness in the faces of the statues.
 The display on the integration of lunch counters included video of actual sit-ins and a lunch counter so real you felt you could order a sandwich. (Katherine was fascinated by the ridiculously cheap prices on the menu.)

 There was a burned out Trailways bus, just like the one the Freedom Riders rode. The lights inside flickered realistically, as if it really had been fire bombed.
 There was a jail cell, like those that countless activists were imprisoned in.
 There was a room lined with church pews and images of stained glass windows with video of Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching. There were pictures and bits of broken glass from the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls died in a bomb blast. There was a period sanitation truck, like those used in Memphis at the time Dr. King came to help organize a strike and lost his life. There were scenes from marches that look remarkably similar to the protests I've marched in this year.

 Rounding a corner, we came face to face with guards at what was clearly meant to be the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. Even knowing that these were mannequins, that it was not real, I felt a flicker of fear walking up that bridge. I can't imagine the terror of the men and women who marched across on Bloody Sunday.
 Walking through the museum made me face the horror and courage of our nation's history. Here it was, laid bare, the cruelty and injustice, the guilt and shame, and through it all, the incredible bravery.
 As the displays moved from the fight for voting rights and the integration of lunch counters and city buses, to the on-going fight for equality in housing and jobs and schools, I was reminded of how much work still needs to be done. Martin Luther King's dream is not yet a reality. I think we forget that, or just pretend that it isn't true.

 Near the end of the museum route, we walked into a space and realized that we were inside Room 306. Through panes of glass on the side, we could see a bed and chair and dresser, as they were the day King was assassinated. A jacket was draped over the chair and a half drunk cup of coffee sat on the desk. Mahalia Jackson was singing Precious Lord, just as she did at the great man's funeral. And there, in front of us, was the balcony where he died. It was gut-wrenching and powerful and nearly everyone who walked in shed tears.
 All through the museum I was reminded and reassured that the historical Civil Rights Movement continues on through today. That what is happening in our country in 2017 has echoes of what happened in 1955 and 1968. That these issues of injustice are still plaguing our nation. That all of my marching and writing and calling and protesting and organizing is worth the fight, that it is the right thing to do.
 I have long known that my heroes are not soldiers or presidents or powerful businessmen, not actors or rock stars or the rich and famous. My heroes, the people I want to be like, to live like, are the men and women, both famous and anonymous, who were and are a part of the fight for civil rights. The men and women who marched and preached and walked and protested and laid their lives on the line to seek justice and dignity and equality for all people. The men and women so beautifully portrayed in this museum.

 Across the street from the museum is an annex, located in the building where the man who killed Martin Luther King, Jr. aimed his gun. There are displays about the manhunt to find him, his trial, the evidence used against him, his imprisonment. None of this interested me. I did gaze out this window at the view he must have seen, and wondered what would have changed if he had never aimed his rifle at room 306.
 After we left, I tried to write about what we had seen in Memphis. At first, all I could write was "Wow. Just wow. The National Civil Rights Museum is an incredibly powerful place." It is. And I am so glad that I experienced it.

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