Last week, on a whim, Patty and I hopped in the car and drove up to Memphis, Tennessee to satisfy my travel hunger. I’d talked with her about Sun Studios where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis began their recording careers. So, off we went – two music nuts on the road to Memphis.
We wanted to go to Stax Records Museum, now called the Museum of American Soul Music. I wanted BBQ ribs and to hear some Memphis Blues. We wanted to dance on Beale Street. I also wanted to go to the National Civil Rights Museum since I’d missed that the last time I was in Memphis. The museum is actually located at the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while he stayed at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968.
Behind my desire to visit the museum is my interest in what I perceive as some similar issues that I believe are driving today’s politics and social reforms. So, I wanted to refresh my memory, to go back and study objectively what the passage of time has allowed to be pieced back together from that horrible series of events that lead to Dr. Martin Luther King’s death.
At the museum, it was so very compelling to hear the words from the last part of an introductory video upon entering the lobby – words from the late 1960’s spoken from the theater screen talking about a socialist agenda and redistribution of wealth along with racism, conspiracies and entitlements. I was young then but I do remember some of it, though it’s been a while since I’ve thought about those days. Civil rights protests, labor strikes, Viet Nam war, J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Jesse Jackson, mafia, unions, riots in Detroit, Watts and now, the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis. That strike is what drew Dr. King to lend his support in Memphis.
The words from The Temptations song played in my head:
Air pollution, revolution, gun control,
Sound of soul
Shootin’ rockets to the moon
Kids growin’ up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will
And the band played on
So round ‘n’ round ‘n’ round we go
Where the world’s headed, nobody knows
Just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that’s what the wold is today
I can’t remember being at a site quite like this before where visitors excitedly walk the grounds to take the tour, walk the flight of steps up to the motel balcony and survey the shooting grounds of a historical figure like this area was. I’ve been to the site where JFK was shot. I’ve been to the Viet Nam wall in Washington D.C. but that’s a whole different feeling. Somber, quiet, tearful, pensive. This, on the other hand, seemed a bit nostalgic, a bit erie and a little too urban, if that makes any sense. It wasn’t until later when I walked past the preserved Lorraine Motel and into the bunker of a museum across the street that I began to piece back together those years that I’d lived through with only hazy memories of this historical moment. I was about to learn more than I ever imagined about civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the museum and during the next few days, I studied hard to educate myself on those events and the people involved. I expected to learn about Dr. King, but a great deal of the experience dealt with the shooting, possible conspiracies with the FBI, the mafia, local hate groups as well as the tracking of James Earl Ray – the accused assassin. It turns out, that the museum is actually in the boarding house across the street from the motel where the shot was fired from a bathroom window. As I walked through the second floor of the museum, I suddenly realized that I was standing in the actual room itself. The boarding house is now the museum!
The bathroom, the actual room where the shot was fired, was preserved just like it must have appeared back then – dirty, grimy, stained. The bedroom where Ray stayed was also recreated. On display too was the rifle, a pistol, the documents, the personal items recovered – much more personal than I expected. I found myself immersed in the allegations of conspiracy as to who actually shot Dr. King. I was curious as to what happened to James Earl Ray on the run from the law and eventually caught in London a few months later. I studied the images on the showcase walls of the shocked faces in the black and white photos from the papers from that day – the resulting riots and protests and eventually, the changes that resulted in the civil rights movement. Though from what I saw, the museum did not cover civil rights as a broad topic, only the circumstances around Dr. King’s life and the immediate history of those years. The first floor did touch on human rights around the world, but it didn’t occupy a large part of the buidling. Perhaps I missed a larger exhibit or a more encompassing history of civil rights as the museum title suggests. At any rate, I left with a sense of what those years were like and the struggles and hopes that so many blacks, poor and oppressed people felt in those years.
I have vague memories of those struggles, seen mainly through the TV news reports of the day in my family room at home. I was 15 years old. I did not live in those neighborhoods. Those were not my experiences. I was probably a bit too young, concerned more with Viet Nam, the military Draft, rock and roll, and what the hell I should be when I grew up. It wasn’t until I was in the U. S. Army in basic training that I began to grasp what prejudice, discrimination and equal rights were all about. Living side by side with every social, economic and cultural difference among soldiers – that was where I got my first personal experience with integration. I grew up where neighborhoods defined your boundaries. There were the ghettos in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. There were the Italian neighborhoods. There were the white suburbs. There was Parma, the largest polish community outside Warsaw itself. There were Jewish neighborhoods, Slavic and Russian neighborhoods. Some areas you could go through, others you definitely avoided. But in the Army, we lived side by side.
The Army was a good place to learn race relations. We had Black drill sergeants. Puerto Ricans too. We had red-neck instructors, hillbillies and asians. We had college boys. We had all ages too. Although I lived in a city of ethnic diversity, the Army was my first time living inside the melting pot. I only had one run-in while I was at basic training, but overall, it was a time where all we wanted to do was get through the training together. Some black dude wanted to butt in line at the mess hall and wanted to see if anyone would challenge him. No one wanted to be in a fight and identified as a trouble maker, so no one fought back. I guess he was satisfied he bullied his way in line and found satisfaction that he’d gotten away with it. That was the only idiot I ran across during my entire 4 years of service. The rest of the time was spent in harmony and most of us were focused on using our military training towards future careers, since by that time, we’d begun our withdrawal from Viet Nam.
Today, I look back and try to learn from history, from poverty, from corruption, from prosperity and from the slow, slow process of change…and try to make more sense of the world as it too evolves. I definitely find similar issues and agendas. I still have opinions on why we still have poverty, discrimination and injustice. But every once in a while, it’s good for me to be exposed to different worlds, different ideas and different walks of life.
As I drove away from the museum, the Lorraine Motel and the shooting grounds, I passed through the poorest of neighborhoods in Memphis. Crime-ridden, liquor stores on every corner and lots of blacks standing on street corners or sitting on front porches. I couldn’t help but wonder why, after another generation has grown up since 1968, Memphis still has to deal with it’s poor and hopeless areas. I wondered a lot of things but this I do know: Treating each other with dignity and equality is paramount despite our social status, cultural upbringing or racial background.. Throw us all together in one big group and learn to live together – that’s America. We live. We fight. We love. We progress. We need to get along with each other. The Civil Rights Museum is a tribute to that mission.
Make the trip to the museum. It is so worth the trip.