Monday, July 2, 2012

Road Trip Day 2 - Civil Rights Museum

There are a lot of things to see and do in Memphis.  Most people thing of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Or Graceland, the estate of Elvis Presley.  But Memphis was also the place where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.  What not everyone does know is that that place has now been converted into an amazing museum and education center, the National Civil Rights Museum.  It documents Dr Kings assassination but goes far beyond that event into the whole history of of slavery in this country,  The struggle for freedom of and by the slaves. The events leading up to the Civil War, the efforts during reconstruction to create a new order in the former slave states, and the effort by many in authority in the south to return to the old order with "Jim Crow" laws that subjected the former slaves to terrible discrimination and poverty,  There was widespread determination that black people were to remain in their proper "place".

Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel was occupied by Martin Luther King and his associate Ralph Abernathy on the day of the shooting. They were getting ready to go to dinner together at the invitation of some friends and fellow workers. The two cars that were to take them there were parked in the lot just below their room. Dr King stepped out of the terrace outside of their room and was shot by a high powered rifle fired from the bathroom window of a boarding house at some distance from across the street. It is believed that James Earl Ray was the shooter. You can see 3 windows in the upper floor of the brick building opposite. The smaller of the three is the bathroom,

Dr King was killed almost instantly and died where fell on the terrace on the left. On the right is the bathroom from which the fatal shot was fired. Both buildings have been converted into museums. The former Lorraine into a history of the civil rights movement, and the boarding house into research into the various conspiracy theories of who was the shooter, if there were others involved, and who assisted in the assassination. There is also a similar review of research or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. These displays were no doubt very interesting to some but less so to Sue and I.

What was very interesting to us was the examination of the long struggle for civil rights by many persons both slave and free. There were life sized dioramas of the restaurant sit-ins supplemented with film and commentary. The bus in which Mrs. Rosa Parks made her decision to refuse to sit in the back of a segregated bus after working hard all day. If the visitor was not familiar with the struggle that led up to these non-violent acts of civil disobedience there is plenty of background information.

The exhibits reminded visitors of the ugliness of the hatred focused on blacks by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, and by society in general.  I grew up in a small town in Eastern Oklahoma in the 1940's and 50's.  Although Oklahoma was not settled until 30 years after the Civil War and was never a slave state, it was settled primarily by people of the southern tradition and held a low regard for people of African descent.  I remember separate waiting rooms and drinking fountains in the train depot for "white" and "colored".  Blacks were permitted to attend movies at our local theater but were required to sit in the balcony.  Of course the black kids who lived in our town had their own separate but probably unequal school building.

As a young boy I thought such things were normal.  Because of segregation blacks and whites interacted very little.  We each lived in separate worlds.  After I graduated high school in 1959 I went to our Oklahoma State University and attended class with people of all races and rapidly recognized the injustice of segregation.  I went through 4 years of college, took a commission in the Army and served in Korea for 2 years.  When I first got out I took a job teaching middle school kids in Tulsa. By then the classes in Tulsa were integrated and the old separate world began to fade away, not without some friction but it was on the way out.

All that was 50 years ago and our society has made a lot of changes. mostly I think for the better.  Today as I went through to museum I watched others as they encountered the exhibits.  I would say that roughly half of the visitors were black and many of those were youngsters, between 12 and 35.  They looked at some of the exhibits almost in disbelief.  Hopefully the viciousness of those days have moved from current reality to history.  Lets hope that we never forget.

This turned out to be a great museum and very interesting.  If you are in Memphis give this a visit. It is a lot more interesting than Gracekand.


Leedslass said... [Reply to comment]

How I'm enjoying this holiday of yours - fascinating post. Sadly, I'm guessing Graceland gets a lot more visitors than the Civil Rights museum.

Yogi♪♪♪ said... [Reply to comment]

Great post Bill.

Sometimes when I hear politicians talk about ending Federal mandates of schools and local control I suspect that they are talking in code to a certain audience about a return to the good old days you write about.

Snowcatcher said... [Reply to comment]

Well, I learned something today. Thank you for sharing all this.

Safe travels to you and Sue!

Cheri said... [Reply to comment]

Very interesting post!

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