We went for BBQ. Memphis, we were told, was “Center Earth” for devotees of BBQ and ribs. My two friends, my wife and I arrived with the excitement of four people ready to explore. Graceland was not far from our hotel so we decided to go pay homage to the King of Rock and Roll.
Graceland was an elegant edifice which was beyond our expectations. We spent some quiet time reflecting upon the rise and success of Elvis and the shame it was that his life was cut so short. So many people have loved and shared in the Elvis experience over the years and it was clear to us why his legend lives.
After dining on awesome BBQ and sleeping the night away, we rose to do what we all felt we must do. We went to the National Civil Rights Museum. I was just thirteen when Dr. King was assassinated. For years I had heard about the Lorraine Motel, never thinking I would be inside it. The museum is built into the motel and extends throughout it, telling the story which needs to be told. While the museum is on the actual site of the assassination, it begins its story long before.
We were incredibly fortunate to be there during a brief period where history came alive. I was told that special underwriting paid for a visiting acting troupe to “act out” various personalities or historical events during what we now call the “age of civil rights.” I was told afterward that these actors will leave the museum shortly after their engagement ends. What a shame, for I was struck by their amazing display of energy and pride and their ability to convey a tragic part of history.
We were also pleased to be at the museum at the same time a student group was visiting. We all joined the tour together. The students and their advisors were all black. We are white. Never before had I been placed in such an interesting circumstance. These children were at the National Civil Rights Museum to learn of their heritage. The actors in the troupe were, correctly, looking at and addressing the children. I had the feeling I was the Ghost of Christmas Past from the Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol.” I seemed invisible, or wanted to be, because the content of what the children were learning was a terrible truth, that blacks over the ages were treated with amazing disrespect. I stood in the back row, with tears welling up in my eyes, as black and white film clips from the early 1960s ran over and over showing police using fire hoses on innocent people of all ages. Those who were hit by water rushing at them through a fire hose at 85 miles per hour were black. The men hosing them down and the bystanders gawking at the site of it were white. I cringed as a youngster in the crowd turned and looked at me. I prayed I was invisible.
The exhibits went on and on and I was amazed at how attentive the children were. What struck me was how polite all the kids were to the acting troupe saying “yes sir” and “no thank you, ma’am”, even when it was not called for.
The part of the museum dedicated to Dr. King and the events leading to his fateful death was spectacular. The museum literally put you “in the line of fire,” having the visitors standing only feet behind where Dr. King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. I found myself standing there for an ungodly long period of time thinking how senseless his death was. I was a voyeur to history and felt the museum captured the moment in time so well.
From the view of the assassination spot, we went across the street, through a special tunnel connecting the Lorraine Motel and the boarding house, where Dr. King’s assassin James Earl Ray stayed and shot Dr. King. I felt a lot like I did the time I visited Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC to see where Lincoln was shot and then crossed the street to see Petersen House, the boarding house where President Lincoln died. This, however, was a remarkable exhibit showcasing every aspect of James Earl Ray’s life during the period leading up to the time he fired that fateful shot. Ten minutes before I stood only feet from the spot Dr. King died and now I was at the very spot the shot was fired. The accompanying exhibits at the boarding room site were exceptional. All were very well done with tremendous care to explain.
We initially thought we would go, look and leave, so we could tell everyone back home we went. What amazed all four of us was that we spent five hours there, reading virtually everything we could. When we left the museum, we went off to seek another five-star BBQ joint and found we spent the next few hours constantly talking about our experience earlier in the day.
I have had the honor of being appointed by President Clinton to the governing board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. That museum also tells the story of bigotry and prejudice. Great care was put into telling the story of the Holocaust. I never thought I would see another museum do as good a job expressing itself with the content of history.
I know why we had planned to go to Memphis originally … Elvis and BBQ … but the memories I will cherish the most are of the hours I was at the museum. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is a jewel to the crown of American museums which should be coveted and appreciated by all.
Gary A. Barron