Frederick Douglas once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” No words have ever rung more true. They are painted on the wall of an exhibit in the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum is an incredibly special experience because it is also the site of the former Lorraine Motel where on April 4, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Now I am going to attempt to explain what you will see if you go and why you should without bawling my eyes out. But I am not sure I can because the sheer thought of this visit brings tears to my eyes.
When I found out that the motel was still intact and had a museum added on I thought, wow what a great idea. I would love to see the museum and the spot where Dr. King was shot. I also knew that there was a wreath marking the spot on that balcony. What I did not expect was my reaction after this experience. Saying that it gave me goose bumps isn’t even the half of it. Since this museum strives to tell the story of the civil rights movement, it is not all about Dr. King. It begins with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and Brown v. Board of Education. Then are you upon a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks rode. And low and behold you can climb aboard. Once you do you hear the voice of a bus driver screaming the words that were likely screamed at Ms. Parks, informing her to move to the back of the bus for a white passenger. There is even a statute of Ms. Parks in her seat. It is the strangest sensation. When I went on it, there was a class of small school children no more than 6 or 7 years old. A little boy behind me saw the statute and yelled “Oh my God it’s Rosa Parks!!!!” It was like a rock star was there. Well, I guess he was right. The presence of that boy brings a smile to my face because despite the generational gaps between him and Ms. Parks, the two very different realities they face, there was still a very clear connection and it warmed my heart.
The next room held a bus that was burned (I am not sure if it was real or not) during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Seeing this enormous bus that was completely burned and torn apart left me breathless. I couldn’t help but stand there completely quiet attempting to take it all in. What did it feel like to be on that bus? How did anyone survive? Better yet, how on earth could these people sign up for a ride they knew could likely end their lives? It’s amazing how we take for granted the freedoms we have never had to live without.
The museum progresses through Alabama at that time and then on to the garbage strikes the week of MLK Jr.’s assassination. There are almost no words for what you see and do next. You are walking through MLK Jr.’s motel room which is behind glass and carefully preserved. You are listening to a hymn that was sung at his funeral. You see the cover of Life magazine zoomed in on a picture of his widow’s face behind her black veil. Then you walk to the front and are now looking out onto the balcony (and front of the motel) where he was shot and killed. To see his view, to be in his room, to know what he sacrificed, and the changes that were coming is all too much. I almost completely lost it. I had to walk out and then back in because it is too powerful an experience all at once. It is to date the most life changing, spiritual, moving museum/preserved building/historical site I have ever been to, and let me reassure you I have been to many. I have seen more of these types of attractions than most and this was the best researched and laid-out. The work behind it is mind-blowing.
A bonus with museum entry is to a building across the street I didn’t know existed. It looks like you are walking into a cave. But you go to the second floor and now you are at the location of the assassin, James Earl Ray. Curators have preserved his room and bathroom to appear as it did that day. You can look out the window and see the perfect view of MLK Jr.’s balcony. It is just as eerie to be on this side. There is also a slew of evidence used to convict Ray as well as the timeline of the crime and trial. The museum alternates what materials are real and which are recreations to preserve all of the artifacts. That was very interesting to me. All items are clearly labeled which are currently on display. I loved that the assassin’s story was kept separate from that of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. This way nothing can diminish that powerful message.
Please note: this museum is currently undergoing renovations, so if you are planning a trip be sure to call ahead. I can’t imagine what will be added so I will definitely have to go back.
If you go here and aren’t affected you are dead on the inside. No matter what I see in the future this will always be at the top of my list. There is nothing like literally living in someone else’s shoes, even if for only a minute.
Well now that I am hysterical crying (I couldn’t hold it in) let’s move on to the next attraction.
Burkle Estate/Underground Railroad
This house was specially commissioned by the Burkle family for the purpose of helping runaway slaves escape. Mr. Burkle went to the local slave market to purchase slaves to keep up appearances. However, they were free in his house and assisted those who passed through the cellars and trap doors in his home on their way to the Mississippi River and freedom. The house looks to be in the same condition as it was a hundred years ago. Inside there are interesting articles and artifacts hanging up. There are copies of advertisements for slaves and rewards for runaways. Outside, there is an enormous magnolia tree that was the very first in Tennessee that came from New Orleans. Our tour guide was lively and entertained us with the story of the house and slavery. She even sang for us, she had an incredible voice. I wish she had a CD in the gift shop; I would have bought it for sure. After walking around the house we get to the finale: the basement! I had been so excited to see the tunnels the runaway slaves used. After climbing down to the basement I couldn’t believe how small they were. It is hard to picture anyone fitting through. But our tour guide (a man took over at this point) told us how in order to qualify for protective landmark status; surveyors had come to the house and actually crawled through to validate its use. I can’t believe it! I kind of wanted to try it but it wasn’t allowed. It’s probably for the best, my purse looked bigger than the entry way.
Now that all of the emotion and serious matters have been dealt, on to cheerier material!
No offense to Memphis but Beale Street reminded me of a cheesier version of the French Quarter in New Orleans combined into one block. The mighty Mississippi is only a few blocks away. Beale Street is known for the Jazz and Blues clubs that line the street. It is a classic Memphis attraction. There are small gift shops and novelty stores. The mighty Mississippi is only a few blocks away. A. Schwab is the oldest family operated and owned general store in Memphis. It is said you can get anything there. Sadly this was the location of my first EVER disagreement with Samantha Brown. She went there on her Memphis episode and my guide book even said it was a must see. However I thought it was kind of a dump. But I took my pictures and crossed it off my list regardless.
In this area, there is also the Peanut Shoppe. It is a small store that makes and sells homemade nuts of every variation and ships them nationwide. The smell inside is delicious. They have been in operation since 1949 and I don’t see them closing any time soon.
Finally there is the Peabody Hotel. It is said to be the nicest hotel in the South and it is gorgeous. But what you come here for are the ducks. That’s right, I said ducks. The Peabody has a custom of marching the ducks from their rooftop penthouse to the fountain in the main lobby at 11am on the nose everyday and then back up every evening at 5pm. It all started as a joke in 1932 when the general manager and a friend came back drunk after a day of duck hunting. They thought it would be funny to place their live decoys in the fountain. In 1940, a circus trainer offered to teach the next generation of ducks and thus a tradition was born.
You need to be there at least 20 minutes early to get a good spot, believe me it will be packed. They are adorable and the march happens really fast so have your cameras handy. After they march back upstairs you can take the elevator to the roof to see them in their habitat. Apparently by law after 3 months they go into retirement at an animal retreat and new ducks take their place. The hotel uses ducks as their logo for everything. Talk about taking a theme and running with it.
While you are here you might as well take a peek in Lansky’s clothing store. It is the company that made Elvis’ clothes and they are an institution.
Stay tuned tomorrow: For Rock n’ Roll, Ribs, and Reflection Part III!
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