Travel: The Civil Rights Movement of Memphis

Relating back to our Spring Break trip to Memphis:

We not only went there for Elvis and the other musical connections, but also because it is home to the National Civil Rights Museum and the historic Lorraine Motel, outside of which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a sentinel event in the history of civil rights in America. 

Although I’ve lived here in the U.S. for a long time now, I’m still continually surprised by how much life is impacted by racial issues in this country. I know that I shouldn’t be that surprised – after all, the U.S. has had a long, difficult and complicated history of race relations and TBH, England was also complicit in that trade, so it’s not as though England is above that. It just seems to be much more of a recent event that impacts ordinary everyday life, but perhaps that is just me who feels this way. (Very well could be.) 

So it was important to me to make time to visit and pay homage to the city which played an integral part of this movement, so off we trundled (via Uber) to the National Civil Rights Museum, a modest and rather unassuming building that is added to the original site of the Lorraine Motel (including the marked balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.) 

You do have to make an extra effort to get to this site, as it doesn’t seem to be very close to any of the other attractions, but I could be mistaken on that. (It just seemed quite a long drive in the Uber.)

It’s in part of the older section of Memphis with lots of red brick buildings and smaller roads, but despite this location, the area was busy with tourists. Not a whole ton of places to sit down and have a cup of coffee or anything, so might want to keep that in mind when you’re dropped off there. (I think there was a vending machine, but there was definitely a very limited selection if you need a respite and some munchies.) 

But we weren’t there to eat. We were there to pay our respects to a fallen civil rights icon, and so to be at the actual site of one of the most important civil rights events in the nation was very impressive. (We also happened to be visiting around the same date in the calendar only fifty years later.)

The Lorraine Motel’s exterior has been kept exactly the same as though time has stopped, and even includes period-appropriate cars that sit in the parking lot under the balcony and the rooms. There’s a huge permanent wreath in that location, and it’s really quite a place for awe and respect with a rather hushed and well-behaved crowd around it. It’s more of a hallowed ground than tourist haven, and generally, people seemed to appreciate that. (I was pretty impressed with this, to be honest.) 

Although you can’t actually go into the hotel room, you can visit the neighboring museum to learn more through interactive exhibits. Inside the museum, it’s not as big as I had expected but the exhibits and general curation were to a high professional standard. I rather get the impression that this museum is a labor of love from a small community group rather than a big museum association. That doesn’t dilute the message in any way, but may be one explanation for the size. I’m not sure. 

The message of the civil rights movement is conveyed through mostly displays and it can take as long (or as short) as you’d like as you are given time to consider your thoughts in relation to the exhibits. It’s a steady stream of visitors and I recommend that you don’t be in a big hurry when you visit here as there is a lot of moseying around (at least when I was there). Plus – school kid groups as well, so there’s quite high traffic. 

However, don’t let that put you off. The museum is worth visiting, and once you see the location of King’s murder and can put it into context with the rest of the civil rights history, it’s a powerful experience. 

So – that was a good and thought-provoking afternoon. 

We also visited Beale Street that day, an old wide street that has some really interesting history, but I think it’s more of a nightclub scene now than anything else. (Some interesting public art displays as well as one of the most curious general merchandise stores I’ve ever visited, but you might want to stay aware as we came across some rather rough-looking people as well.) 

So, our overall experience of Memphis was really good, and I really recommend a visit if you’re interested. What really elevated the trip was the fact that everywhere we went, we were met with kind and generous people. Honestly – it was the people who made the difference here. 

For our other Memphis shenanigans, check out this post.

March: Book One – John Lewis/Nate Powell (2013)

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Poking around on the interwebs, I came across this graphic novel title and seeing as I was in the mood for a little sequential art, I picked it up at the library. As this was also an autobiography of a leading Civil Rights activist and U.S. Congress person John Lewis, it also was right up my alley for the Black History Month project as well. Win-Win!

I was not familiar with John Lewis, but learned a lot about his life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement via this graphic novel and loved reading it. And it wasn’t all about Lewis – I learned about the fledgling  civil rights movement, how and where the activity started, and who was whom in the struggle.

This GN is number one in a projected trilogy, with Book Two just published this year, I think. (I have already asked for it via inter-library loan as I am so intrigued by Lewis’ later life and activism.) Lewis was born to a sharecropper in rural Alabama, he met Martin Luther King, Jr., and was involved with the Nashville Student Movement and the burgeoning sit-in movement that was just about to spread across the country. Non-violence was the name of the game, although obviously not everyone stuck to those rules. (Understatement of the year.)

This is a serious book about a serious subject, and yet it’s palatable for even a reluctant reader and the learning is camouflaged inside the graphic illustrations and the actual story. It’s about Lewis, for sure, but it’s also about activism, about the unsung heroes who sat at the lunch counters and who wouldn’t move, about Gandhi and his non-violence philosophy, and about getting some basic rights for people who were as American as anyone who is born on this soil.

So, this was a great read for me, and, clearly, it would be a super read for anyone looking to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, about the Jim Crow years, about the 1950’s and 1960’s in the U.S., and all from the perspective of someone who was there and who lived this.

If you can’t tell, I loved this graphic novel and can’t wait for Book Two to arrive. Lewis (and his collaborator Nate Powell) are great story-tellers of his own life.

Part of JOMP’s Black History Month .

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