On the final full day of the bus tour, we spent our time going around Memphis and visiting important historical sites. The rain was coming down heavy this morning as we hopped on the bus and headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Friends had told me how unnerving this site was for them, and I think was intensified by the rain following us this morning. We walked past the famous Lorraine Motel sign, with its pristine restoration, and in front of the motel on our way to the lobby. There, roughly twenty feet away, was the balcony I have seen memorialized in images, movies, and textbooks my entire life: the place where MLK was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. While everyone was running to get in from the rain, I stood for a moment, remembering the images I have seen in black and white my entire life. I don’t think I was truly prepared to take in everything that followed.
Inside, we made our way through the museum quickly because we only had 2.5 hours before we had to meet for lunch, but I immediately understood how visitors could spend hours, even an entire day, going through the exhibit. I will touch on a couple of these exhibits here before getting to my main point of intrigue. First, the Rosa Parks and sit-in sections of the museum stood out for their liveliness. Both had replicas of what it would be like on a bus during the boycotts and to sit at a lunch counter if you were protesting civil rights. This forced me to see the experience for what it was: a frightening, oppressing moment in American history. While textbooks often glance over these event quickly, the museum forces participants to see the reality of the pain, hear the slurs, and witness the hatred firsthand. These first two exhibits stood out for their molding of reality.
But I knew I had to move quickly through the first part of the museum to get to one of more intriguing, yet also icky feeling, parts of the tour: the construction and maintenance of the place where MLK died and where the sniper stood to shoot him. Towards the end of the first building of the museum, participants get to stand next to the room where MLK last stayed before getting shot. The curators reconstructed the room to represent what it looked like on the night MLK died. While I am sure the curators contend they do this to persevere history and help people see what it truly looked like on the fateful day, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. I felt as if we were staring into the intimacy of a terrible event and could not explain why people would want to see this image. But this feeling was expanded when in the second building you are able to walk to the space where the sniper stood when he took out MLK. The museum openly touts this space and even allows visitors to go to a window similar right next to the actual window (that they keep under protective glass) to see what the sniper would have seen. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that places choose to glorify sites like this. But it made me wonder if this was due to popular demand or if they museum knew what people really wanted to see.
After we finished with the museum we ate lunch on site and got back on the bus. We had two more events to accomplish: 1) visit with the sanitation protesters who helped take back their wages and civil rights in the city and 2) do a driving tour of the city. We met with three sanitation workers who took part in the famous “I am a man” strike in the late-1960s. The strikers explained the motives for taking part in the protest, the harsh conditions they worked in, and how they set the stage for better equality in the city and nation-wide as well. One of the men even stated that Obama told him that he wasn’t sure if he would be president today if it was not for the work they completed in the city. Overall, these three men represent how change can take place on the small scale, without national figures being involved directly. They brought the attention to themselves which garnered more publicity and pressure on the city to give them decent wages and benefits.
Lastly, we meet with Elaine Turner to end our day of activities, and she drove us around the city to visit important historical places like the First Baptist Church on Bealle Street, Slave Haven, and other sites. The place that stood out the most was the Mason Temple, where MLK gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. We walked into the temple and saw an image similar to the balcony of the Lorraine motel: a place I have seen in videos and images but have never thought about in reality. I was able to walk around and actually stand where MLK proclaimed the truth. I kept thinking about how fateful that night must have seemed to many at the time, MLK saying he had seen the mountaintop the night before he was murdered, and I imagined being in the audience cheering on with the thousands of others who were glad to see the civil rights hero among them. It was such a surreal moment, much like the Lorraine Motel, and I don’t think I will ever forget how awe-struck I was at the temple.
Our final full day on the tour could be defined by its harrowing nature because compared to other sites we had visited on the tour, the MLK history was the stuff we need early in our education. I remember even performing the “I Have a Dream” speech in third grade for a play. Thus, when we saw the MLK history in the material realms of Memphis hit a different nerve. I am actually glad that this day in Memphis was our final full day because I am not sure if I could emotionally handle much more days like that day. And that icky state has stayed with me, now two days removed.