Saturday, May 16, 2015

Memphis on my Mind

Day 5: Memphis 
About ten years ago, just before I went to grad school and after Matt finished seminary, we drove across the United States. Our first leg took us from California along the Northern part of the United States to New Jersey in the Fall. A few months later, our drive back home was from Philadelphia to California and we drove through the South and then Southwest. Memphis was one of the cities we drove through, but at the time we passed through the National Civil Rights Museum and Lorraine Motel were closed to visitors, so instead we went to Graceland! (Yes, really.) This time we skipped Elvis' eternal flame and the over-the-top-at-the-time decor. 

After such an intense previous day, we needed some down time, so Matt headed to the amazing breakfast spot downstairs from our mediocre and kind of weird hotel/apartment and I blogged a bit. We hoped to avoid the crowds, so by noon we went to spend the bulk of the day visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, connected to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. 
The motel hasn't been a working motel for a very long time, and the entire edifice acts as a memorial. 
Our friend Jeff had told us to allot plenty of time to the museum, and we ended up spending four hours there! It was easily one of the best museums I've ever been to, and even though there was overlap in historical content, stories and artifacts with many of the places we'd already visited it was still incredibly moving. As a white American I know about the civil rights movement in generalities with knowledge of a few key people, but hearing about these stories and specifics repeatedly in a week, I realized how little I truly have embedded in my long term memory. Good to read and re-read and tell and retell. 

I walked through this museum and took 8 billion pictures, but I will spare you most of them. Suffice it to say, it is worth a trip. Here are a few snippets from our four! hours of walking through the museum.

I loved this quote:
The area for listening to every day people's oral histories from the Jim Crow era was simultaneously touching and disturbing.
There was an entire exhibit committed to students and activists who worked from equality in the school system. Students of all ages sacrificed their safety and well-being to integrate schools. Teachers pushed against the status quo with ongoing professional repercussions. Families and communities gave rides, physical and emotional support to the children who put themselves in harms way to go to schools. 
I loved the below letter from Grace Lorch, a white mother who was active in the civil rights movement with her husband Lee. Upon moving to Little Rock, she wrote a letter to the local school superintendent asking that her daughter eleven-year-old Alice be allowed to attend the neighborhood school: "Since we live at 1801 High Street, located in a Negro neighborhood, this would be a Negro school," she wrote, adding that it "might also provide a useful and unobtrusive example of benefit to the process of integrating Little Rock schools." The school district denied the Lorch's request. The Lorch's went on to be involved with integration in Little Rock and helped escort the Little Rock Nine (who integrated the high school).
Also loved the emphasis on recognizing the hundreds of anonymous, hardworking and brave women who made the Montgomery Bus boycott successful. 

This photo is from the Highlander School, an integrated training school in Tennessee. Rosa Parks is on the left next to Septima Clark, Myles Horton, and MLK Jr is at the end. This photo (among others) was distributed as anti-civil-rights propaganda. 
The interior of a bus similar to the one Rosa Parks was sitting on, soon after she went to study at the Highlander School, when she refused to get up and move for a white passenger, which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

An exhibit honoring the lunch counter sit-ins. 
This quote brought tears to my eyes:
Clara Luper (her pic is below) was a high school teacher in Oklahoma City, and she was instrumental in desegregating lunch counters in Oklahoma. She was arrested TWENTY SIX times!
Powerful words and a brave woman:
A reproduction of the Greyhound bus full of Freedom Riders that was burned near Anniston, Alabama on Mother's day in 1961. 
I'm including this excerpt from Wikipedia summarizing this event:
"The Birmingham, Alabama, Police Commissioner, Bull Connor, together with Police Sergeant Tom Cook (an avid Ku Klux Klan supporter), organized violence against the Freedom Riders with local Ku Klux Klan chapters. The pair made plans to bring the Ride to an end in Alabama. They assured Gary Thomas Rowe, anFBI informer and member of Eastview Klavern #13 (the most violent Klan group in Alabama), that the mob would have fifteen minutes to attack the Freedom Riders without any arrests being made. The plan was to allow an initial assault in Anniston with a final assault taking place in Birmingham.
On May 14, Mother's Day, in Anniston, a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, some still in church attire, attacked the first of the two buses (the Greyhound). The driver tried to leave the station, but was blocked until KKK members slashed its tires. The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then firebombed it. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death. Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank or an undercover state investigator brandishing a revolver caused the mob to retreat, and the riders escaped the bus. The mob beat the riders after they escaped the bus. Only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.
That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders, most of whom had been refused care, were removed from the hospital at 2 AM, because the staff feared the mob outside the hospital. The local civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of blacks to rescue the injured Freedom Riders in defiance of the white supremacists...
When the Trailways bus reached Anniston and pulled in at the terminal an hour after the Greyhound bus was burned, it was boarded by eight Klansmen. They beat the Freedom Riders and left them semi-conscious in the back of the bus.
When the bus arrived in Birmingham, it was attacked by a mob of KKK members aided and abetted by police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains."
A few of the hundreds of Freedom Riders who were arrested throughout the summer of 1961:
I should have written an entire post on bada$$ women, because there were so many, including Virginia Durr, whose car was overturned and burned by a mob while she was inside of a church with others.
 From Birmingham in 1963:

From Freedom Summer in 1964, and the work in Mississippi to get blacks registered to vote, which soon extended to also teaching reading, writing and organizing.

 Images from the Black Power movement, which was emerging in the late 60's, evolving away from Kingian non-violence.
From the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, which King had come to support - footage of a mass meeting projected onto one of the sanitation trucks

The museum ends outside of rooms 306 and 307, the rooms where King and his friends were staying the last night of his life.

King preached these words shortly before he was killed. Powerful. 
This patch of cement where King fell after being shot has been cut out and replaced, as there was a great deal of blood staining the concrete.

Across the street from the museum you are able to look through the window from where it's believed the shooter shot at King, killing him. It's quite surreal. That wing of the museum is entirely made up of exhibits regarding the theories about King's assassination. We kind of walked through that area without spending much time on it, although it is really detailed.

Heartbreaking words from King's father:
The next morning we drove to Mason Temple, where King preached his last sermon- I've Been to the Mountaintop. 

Today Mason Temple isn't in a great part of town, which we noticed in many of the areas we visited. Decades of racism, poverty and a lack of economic opportunity have taken their toll in these neighborhoods. I wondered so many times what it means today, in 2015, to shift that. I don't have the answers. But despite the economic depression that was so prevalent in many of the areas we drove through, and that is throughout my own city, I was challenged to keep thinking about these disparities and injustices. It isn't hard to see them, but it's hard to figure out how to address them. I'll end this post with an excerpt from King's last speech at the Mason Temple, just before he was shot and killed. 

"Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school -- be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother....

That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you....

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"


To being as concerned about our brothers and sisters as we are about ourselves.


  1. oh siouxze, these words pierced me this morning. Thank you for sharing. The quotes from MLK Jr's father and the one about a "genteel and nuanced racism" cut me. You're making me think and reflect more than anything else has in the last year. Would you do a post about your top kid's book recommendations on all things social justice related? also, i'd really like to plan a day trip to Oakland to see you guys this summer. can we? =)


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