I have a dream
As fate would have it, we are in Memphis on Martin Luther King Day, and we just had to take a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which has been built upon the site of the Lorraine Motel, scene of Dr.King’s assasination in 1968. The motel has been preserved, and the museum built around it. On MLK day, there is a special $2 admission fee.
After a fortuitous wrong turn off Highway 55, we ended up in Tom Lee park, a lovely expanse of grass and pathways on the banks of the Mississippi, and we got our first glimpse of this mighty river. The park is named after ” a very worthy Negro” -according to the quaintly-worded monument, who saved many lives in a steamer disaster in 1954. The parking there was free, so we decided to walk up to the civil rights museum from there.
As we crested the rise and made our way towards it, the Lorraine motel, and that balcony and the fateful room came into view. Mahalia Jackson’s voice soared on the morning breeze and I was stopped dead in my tracks. I wasn’t prepared for it to look exactly as it did on that day in 1968. It was like being thrown back in time with the force of a hammer. I remembered this event as a 10 year old boy, and it’s repetition through the media as I was growing up. One bullet that altered the course of history. Such emotion welled up within me as I witnessed this scene, I almost broke down. A queue stretched into the distance along the sidewalk, a great ebony snake, for there were few white people here on this day, maybe half a dozen in addition to Miki and myself. We joined the throng and waited our turn, paying our dollars to be confronted with the hard facts of oppression, bigotry, violence, ignorance, and plain stupidity. With mothers showing their children their history ahead and behind us, I got a feeling how Germans must feel who pluck up the courage to visit the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, where I have been. What did surprise me was how recent segregation prevailed in American history, and I feel that Britain for all its faults , was enlightened a lot sooner than the U.S.
I learned about folk heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, brave women who made their name as guardian of the Underground railroad and abolishionist respectively.
When we reached the glass case that displayed the ridiculous costume of a Ku Klux Klansman, I felt a wave of shame for the colour of my skin, and wondered “my god, what must they really think of us?” I hope the vermin that started that despicable organisation and anyone who subsribed, or indeed still subscribes, to its beliefs – rot in hell.
We boarded a bus which told the story of the legendary Rosa Parks, who rightfully received an award for her actions as late as 1991. When we finally reached that balcony, and looked out at the window across the street from where the shot is adjudged to have rang out, I felt a shudder of realization at just how easy it is to take out a figurehead. But, as history has proved, however many bullets you have, you will never shoot down a dream.
We crossed the road to explore the section that covered the life of the gunman James Earl Ray, and as I was reading a little about his life, Miki said “you know what? why are we spending our time on this guy? He is nothing, just a common criminal.” I pondered her words for a moment, and realized his ‘fame’ was indeed an illusion, a perverted, inverted version- courtesy of the greatness and the vision of his victim. James Earl Ray deserved not a minute more of our time, and we turned our backs on the detritus of his sorry little life.
As we left the Civil Rights museum to enjoy the rest of our day, I felt privileged to have had the chance to visit this place on this particular day. Happy Birthday MLK, I salute you.