It is hard to find the words that do justice when you experience something that stirs your innermost being. Today was just that kind of day as Jennie and I visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. I grew up in the 1960’s as part of a Midwest household that didn’t give much thought to the plight of anyone but our own.
Two full-time working parents with two latchkey kids reared by a host of neighborhood stay-at-home moms. Ones with parental authority to smack us on the behind if we got out of line; which did, on occasion, happen. Television was a mainstay and I watched the goings on of the world as part of the Nightly News with Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. At times the world looked pretty scary; especially after the assignation of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
My brother and I grew up in a poor to middle class neighborhood (depending on the street you happened to live) that was, as I recall, 100% white. The Blacks in our town lived in their own neighborhoods and went to their predominately Black schools. We didn’t go to their neighborhood and they didn’t come to ours. It was just the way it was, and we didn’t think to question it.
It wasn’t until I started going to the YMCA to hang out in the late 1960’s for swimming lessons that I began to see and interact with Black kids from around town. It wasn’t a dislike thing for either of us, it’s just that we didn’t have much to talk about or seem to share anything in common, so conversations didn’t go very far. I couldn’t imagine how later in life I’d learn just how far from the truth this was.
I’ve come to learn that discrimination is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what a person owns or how they feel about themselves or their accomplishments. Discrimination says, “You don’t fit here; whoever you are, irrespective of from where you came.” Discrimination strips away all dignity and individual purpose and freedom.
Discrimination enslaves the will of an individual so that all that is left is the fight to retake that which was taken or acquiesce and become, literally, a walking dead. Dead to hope; the heart of despair.
Due to the fact that my mom was a single-mom rearing two boys from 1958 to 1964, we experienced some short-term discrimination from those that looked down upon our station of life, but it pales in comparison to the world beyond our four walls.
Today I stood in hotel where Dr. King worked, prayed, laughed and died. I gazed upon his hotel room just inside the wall where an assassin’s bullet ended his life as he stood on the hotel walkway. Like many places I’ve seen of late, this place looked very small, fragile and surreal.
It was said that Dr. King, after giving his extemporaneous “I’ve been to the mountain top” sermon, came back to the Loraine Hotel to rest and hang out with friends and supporters of the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike, and had a pillow fight with one such friend.
The Civil Rights Museum is done conscientiously well. The exhibits, interactive displays and video presentations allowing a visitor to walk through time and see life from slavery to today, from the Black perspective.
We all have a lot in common in the human condition of wanting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Beyond Graceland, and within walking distance of the two-block area of Beale Street, sits The Civil Rights Museum; a destination worth seeing even if seeing nothing else.