I’ve been to a few new places this week, and have seen and done things I won’t forget anytime soon, but today’s trip to the National Civil Rights Museum has earned the distinction of being the most affecting experience thus far. I had idly noticed it on a map last night, but hadn’t given much thought to whether I would go to it; I didn’t know what I’d do in Memphis, beyond sleeping, honestly.
This morning when I moved my car before breakfast, I saw one entrance, and thought maybe I’d take a look after I ate, but I still didn’t truly grasp what I was seeing. I got my eggs and biscuits and grits at the oldest diner in Memphis, then still had an hour on the meter, so decided to take a walk. It was the vintage motel sign that caught my eye. I walked down the hill to get a closer look, and it was only then that I understood where I was. The Lorraine Motel is the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. It has been both preserved and transformed, along with the rooming house across the street where James Earl Ray is said to have fired the shot from a second floor bathroom window, into the National Civil Rights Museum. At first, I simply stood in the courtyard, looking up at the balcony outside of room 306, and listening to Dr. King’s voice. It was already enough to fill my eyes with tears. Scattered across the courtyard are four listening posts, which provide short videos about the sanitation strike that brought him there that day, and about the day itself. I watched them all, and watched other people filter across the courtyard, pausing in the same way I had, then make their way into the building.
I only had about half an hour left on my meter, but I figured I’d at least take a quick look. I went in, bought my ticket, and 20 minutes later, left to move my car into their lot before going in to see the introductory film. I left again nearly four hours later.
The exhibits begin with the slave trade and Middle Passage, and work their way up to the Black Power movement and beyond. Over, and over, I found myself unable to fathom the depth of hatred involved over something as basic as skin color. I don’t understand, and my main reaction to that lack of understanding was the impulse to cry over the brutality and bravery in turns. I knew much of what was presented, but I had never seen it all in one place, at one time, and the effect, for me, was profound.
The questions I keep coming back to are:
What could Dr. King have done if he’d had a life of a more natural duration (he was only 39 years old, he was killed just over two years before I was born, and yet his legacy is immense and enduring)?
What would he, and others who didn’t live through the turmoil of the time, think about the fact that, in many ways, we are right back where we were when they were fighting so valiantly for change and equality?
I don’t know the answers to either of them, but thinking of what I saw and heard today makes my hair stand up, and I can only hope that, one day, somehow, we will learn from the past and be able to embrace a vision of the future in which equality is finally a reality.