Memphis has two Kings

Posted: June 27, 2010 in All Posts, Day 3: Memphis and Oxford, MLK Civil Rights Museum
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Beale Street, Memphis

Memphis has two Kings

The photo to the right was taken on Beale Street shortly after we arrived in Memphis on Sunday June 6.
I was really looking forward to Memphis. Every time I thought about that part of the trip, lyrics of a Tommy Womack song “Up Memphis Blues” played in my head, fragments like “I’m goin’ up Memphis, and honey I’m gonna see the King.” I laughed and thought of Elvis as a real king, the king of Memphis, so this town ought to be good.

On Beale Street, there was this kid doing acrobatics. Flips and cartwheels and handsprings you name it in the streets, so I stopped and snapped, thinking about what a good backdrop Beale Street would be for just about anything. And how amazingly flexible and precise this kid was. Beale Street might have been one of those places where racial lines were invisible through music and saloon culture, regardless of whatever turmoil made the headlines during the day.

The site of the Lorraine Motel was startling. The day was gorgeous the sky was bright blue even just after high noon and there was one of those warm “it’s almost summer’ breezes blowing that you only find in the South. The Lorraine stood like it was trapped in time in front of the backdrop of the weather. I didn’t expect to see the wreath on the balcony of room 306, the spot where King stood as he was shot, or the same cars from the photos. The sight and feel of brilliant restoration facilitated a visceral transcendence back to 1968, and as we entered the museum I could feel the past, feel the motel and the time and souls over my shoulder.

Walking through this museum with Dr. Arsenault satisfied a lifelong wish, if that makes sense. He answered every single question I had, with precise info. He seemed to be gauging as to whether or not I understood, got it. No angst at my asking of so many questions, even taking them a step further and pointing out ironies and idiosyncrasies in the exhibits. It’s hard to explain but if you know me, you know how I feel and that I have moments in my life when I realize a certain person who I loved more than life itself, the last person who truly answered my questions, and who hasn’t been alive since 2005, sends me these moments and these people and I realized that this trip and Dr. Arsenault and the whole USF experience may have been architected if she’s truly watching over me like I believe, and she sent this whole thing and I was free to be into it and ask away, learn. Here, this day, a thirst for knowledge about Civil Rights took root in me. I realized I knew nothing about this movement until now.

By the time we reached Room 306, the room where Ralph Abernathy held his best friend in his arms as he died, I was glad to have my classmates and professor around me. I needed to ask questions. I still do. I can’t for the life of me figure out why that had to happen the way it did. The ashtrays in the room were full of cigarette butts. Of course they smoked, and I wondered if they kept smoking as King’s life escaped him. I would have.

After Memphis, we went to Ole Miss visited the sites where the ridiculousness of the rioting took place when James Meredith registered for school. US Marshalls, armed only with tear gas, faced an angry mob of southerners and students who just left a football game in Jackson. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was the host of the game, and rallied the crowd with, “I love Misssissippi. I love her people. I love our customs!!” Charles Moore, who photographed the riot at Ole Miss, says that more people cheered “Roll with Ross” than for the football team. We saw the Lyceum, where guards were shot at, fought with and taunted. We saw the memorial to James Meredith.

We listened to Historian Charles Eagles after our walking tour. Eagles pointed out that one of the motivations of keeping the races separate was the thought that athletic black men “will want to dance with our girls.” He explained that fears of interracial sex and what he called the “marbleization” of the races was at the root of the racial hate and animosity at Ole Miss. Eagles said that separating the races was the path they chose because they couldn’t think of trying to teach their girls how to behave. In his work, Eagles painted a picture of Meredith that showed him as an outsider, a conservative (he was in the Air Force and the son of a well-to-do sharecropper) and also talked about the flaws and oversights made on the monument to Meredith. Eagles, as a contrarian and a critical thinker, expanded my view on race and taught me to look at intention, to be ready to challenge intention when it comes to things like monuments.

I chose the photo above to represent this part of the trip. The child is a metaphor to the spirit of blacks in the movement, flexible, disciplined, exceeding any expectations against a backdrop of a culture that they inspired. It’s also a metaphor for the my transition, realizing that I needed to perform some mental gymnastics and reconsider Civil Rights as something I know nothing about until now.

On that day – I took that photo a few hours before I realized, looking in to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, that Memphis has two Kings.


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