A Civil Rights Lesson in Memphis

The last two weeks have been interesting in my world. I found myself quitting a job that was simply never going to meet its full potential in favor of what I hope will be a better career opportunity. In the short term, as these things go, the move is lateral, and it actually has a longer commute, but I hear nothing but good things about the place, so I will do everything I can to quell the cynical side of myself that – all too often – comes to the forefront.

I pride myself on being punctual, hard working, and loyal to any company that I work for, so changing jobs isn’t as easy or commonplace for me as it is for others. I do have a weird vibe about the fact that I left my last job without giving proper notice, but I simply didn’t have the chance to give a proper two weeks’ notice.

You see, I had to take a week for myself. This included catching up on errands, going for a hike, and visiting my sister, who as Loyal Readers know lives in Memphis. The last time I saw her down there was in Thanksgiving, 2016, just two months after our mother passed away.

Many of my blog introductions begin with the following sentiment, but it really is true: Where does the time go?

In between going to the movies with my niece, spoiling Dottie the Doxie, and sampling my sister’s good, organic cooking, I knew that I wanted to spend at least one of those days exploring the city itself. This year is the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, and I figured that the energy at the National Civil Rights Museum, which is built into and around the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s murder, would be palpable.

I was right. Although I had visited the museum several years earlier, the entire neighborhood seemed abuzz with energy this time around, and although I arrived as a large tour group was leaving, the galleries were crowded and solitude was nowhere to be found.

If you don’t know the full details of MLK’s unfortunate death, he was staying in room 306 of the motel while in town to mediate a sanitation workers’ strike. His killer, James Earl Ray, was both a WWII vet and a career criminal, serving time in prisons across the country for crimes ranging from burglary to mail fraud. Ray lived in Mexico for several years under an alias, and reportedly sought work as a pornographic filmmaker. Once he resumed life in the U.S., he volunteered for George Wallace’s presidential campaign, who loathed MLK for his March on Birmingham, documented in 2014’s excellent “Selma.”

It would seem that Ray had planned to kill MLK for several weeks, as he spent time scoping out MLK’s home and church in Atlanta before renting a room at a boarding house across the street from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the two men’s fates would become intertwined on April 4th, 1968.

Why give so much attention to the killer, who succeeded merely in cutting short the life of one of the 20th century’s brightest voices for freedom? Well, for one thing, it could be argued that in death, MLK’s dream ultimately carried more weight than if he had lived. For another thing, your visit to the National Civil Rights Museum allows you to peer into the room in which MLK stayed, and the admission ticket includes entry to a gallery across the street that preserves the boarding house bathroom from where Ray is believed to have fired the fatal shot with his high-powered Remington rifle. If you are a visual learner, seeing these places first hand, from the shooter’s and victim’s vantage points, helps to bring it all home; the back story merely provides some much-needed context.

So much, though, of the museum’s stellar exhibits focus on Dr. King’s struggle to bring the segregationist South up to the progressive standards of the North. The city bus inside of which Rosa Parks made her historic stand is on display here, as is the bombed-out shell of a Freedom Riders’ bus. The first gallery includes artifacts worn by or made by African slave laborers, such as this terracotta pot from Burkina Faso:

Other exhibits commemorate the lunch counter sit-ins, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs, a mock-up of the Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma, AL) that doubles as a ramp to the museum’s second level. Here, exhibits chronicle the rise of Black Power as well as contributions by African Americans in both the arts and athletics. I wish the museum had more of this memorabilia on display, but it is worth noting that the Stax Records Museum, also in Memphis and worth a visit, has much more to offer in this particular area. Check out their website to better plan your visit: http://staxmuseum.com/

I have written before about how the population of Memphis is stagnant, even declining, whereas the population of the state capital, Nashville, is growing at a rate higher than that of perhaps any other city in the Southeast. Still, Memphis is blessed with a superb collection of museums, and it deserves to thrive alongside Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, and other, more popular, cities in the region. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man whose name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as that of Nelson Mandela and Mahātmā Gandhi. The museum built around the site of his death and to commemorate his cause is a fitting tribute to his message, and it, more than Graceland, Sun Studios, Beale Street, or any other place in Memphis, demands a thorough visit.

Check out the museum’s website to confirm hours, admission costs, and driving directions: https://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/ I will conclude today’s post with a picture of a superb mural, entitled “Facing History and Ourselves,” that adorns the walls of the building directly across the street…next door to the building inside which James Earl Ray fired that fatal shot.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

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