When I was a kid Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday didn’t mean much more than a day off. I looked forward to sleeping in, staying in my pajamas, and watching Nickelodeon all day. As I got older, I learned of the changes that Dr. King had made, the progress he put into motion. Learning of these things may not have immediately changed my feelings about my day off, however it opened my eyes to what a special man was born on this day.
A long time ago I was channel surfing and stumbled across an episode of True Life on MTV. In this episode they were dealing with interracial couples and the problems that they face. It showed one couple walk through the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. I was intrigued by the museum and put it on my Places to Go list. Years passed and I filed it in the bottom drawer of my mind’s filing cabinet.
Fast foward to 2009. My mom and a family friend were planning a vacation to Memphis. Other than Graceland, I had no idea what Memphis had to offer (SPOILER ALERT: it’s a lot).) I Googled Memphis and after I got past all of the websites about Elvis and Graceland I saw The National Civil Rights Museum. Immediately, I remembered the True Life episode and needed to go there.I added it to our growing list of places to visit when we got there.
A little background on the museum. It is broken into two buildings located across the street from one another. The main building is the old Lorriane Hotel. This is an important location because this is the hotel where Dr. King was shot. The second building is the apartment building in which James Earl Ray sat in the bathtub and shot Dr. King.
We took the trolley (reason # 641648 why I need to live in Memphis) down to the museum. From the outside the museum still looks like a hotel from the 1960’s. They have the original sign, and a few authentic cars in the parking lot. I loved that detail. I didn’t get close enough to them to see if there was a sign that said why they were there. Meaning, if they left Dr. King’s car where it was, or if they added them later to make it look and feel more authentic.
As we were walking through the doors there were big signs all over saying:
NO PICTURE TAKING AT ALL. PLEASE PUT YOUR CAMERAS AWAY.
Seriously? So of course I had to ask if this is real.
Me: So, like are they serious about the camera thing? I really can’t take pictures in here?
Ticket Lady: Yes m’am. You can’t take pictures in the museum.
Me: Even without flash? Because in Graceland they let you take pictures without flash. What if I just hold the camera?
Ticket Lady: Even without flash. Please put the camera in your bag. They will confiscate it if they see it.
Ok, if you say so.
I even put my saddest, “I’m just a tourist” face but she held firm.
Before you are able to walk through the exhibits you have to sit and watch a short movie on the history of civil rights. It showed pictures from the time of slavery all the way until the 1960’s. The last few minutes of the film they showed pictures of the race riots and the people getting hosed by the police. Now, I’m not a cryer but I seriously teared up. They look on the faces of the people were haunting.
The museum flowed as you walked through it, starting in the 1600’s with Slavery in America. You traveled through to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in the 50’s, the Student Sit – Ins and Freedom Rides in the 60’s, and the Black Power Movement in the 70’s. They had replicas of the bus that Rosa Parks rode, complete with statues of her and the yelling bus driver. They had the original lunch counter where students sat and had food and condiments and God knows what else thrown on them, they had the burned out Freedom Riders bus.
When you got closer to where Dr King’s room was they had more exhibits on him and the work he did, his protests and marches. They had a replica of his jail cell and they played the phone call between him and his wife from that cell. I believe she told him President Kennedy had called the house but it’s been a while and I can’t find it online. I remember that it was a very husband/wife conversation. I even think at one point their daughter got on the phone too.
Then we got to the end. Room 306. It was surreal. As the crowd filed into the area, the whole mood changed. It was quiet and somber. If we spoke it was quietly. Which is a lot coming from a group of people from Brooklyn. It’s not that we’re rude or trying to be, it’s just sometimes we forget that our amp is on 11. As much as I wanted my camera, I’m glad they were banned because it gave me the opportunity to savor the moment.The preservation efforts were amazing. The bed was unmade, the coffee was untouched (well, ok the fake coffee was untouched), his toiletry bag was still in the bathroom and cigarette butts (again, fake) were still in the ashtray. And then it was over.
We made our way across the street to the boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed. They showed the mattress that he slept on, the clothes he left, and the bathtub he sat in when he shot Dr. King. And of course, the view is the same. It was eerie. The mattress was dirty and the tub was gross. The minute I stepped off the elevator and on to the floor of the exhibit I felt it. Something bad had happened here. The same way I felt a sad heaviness when I saw Dr King’s room. Seriously, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
After leaving the museum we probably had something to eat, maybe had a drink at the Peabody with the ducks (A Memphis must see!). Eventually we got on the plane and came home. But. That visit has stayed with me all this time.
Today is not just a day off. Today we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We need to build on the foundations he laid and spread more of what he taught and brought forth. Today and everyday.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King.