My mom lived in Memphis when MLK was murdered.
She was in Jr. High and still tears up when she talks about the palpable loss that permeated the city. The curfews. The division in the aftermath of such hatred. The tanks trailing the sanitation workers. The fear.
She tells me stories of being harassed for playing with black children and what it was like to live in such a divided world. Of course, spending large chunks of her childhood in the segregated south was different for my mother — a white woman. But if it was bad enough for cry when she talks about it 50 years later, what was it like for the black people on the receiving end of such hatred?
The National Civil Rights Museum has the answer.
My Airbnb was literally around the corner from my mother’s childhood home. The journey to the site of the Lorraine Motel took less than 10 minutes.
The facade of the Lorraine has been wonderfully preserved and carefully resembles its appearance on April 4, 1968. Only Dr. King’s and one neighboring room remain, while the rest of the building has been expanded and transformed to guide visitors through the entire struggle for civil rights, from the transatlantic slave trade to Black Lives Matter.
I visited roughly a week after the 2016 presidential election. A campaign filled with divisive and hateful rhetoric that has left many Americans fearful for their rights and safety. I believe that the timing of my visit heavily influenced the somber mood and tangible sadness throughout the museum.
At the beginning of the exhibits, there is an informative gallery that lays the groundwork for the politics of the slave trade. It ends with the sobering words, “Due to slavery, America became one of the richest countries in the world.” From there, I followed a black elementary school class into a room depicting the inhumane treatment that Africans were forced to endure on their “passage” to America.
Those children asked the questions that only children can:
“What if he has to go to the bathroom?” wondered one, pointing towards the line of statues crammed into the ship’s underbelly.
“Where does he eat?”
“Why are there marks on him?”
“Where’s his mom?”
The museum also doesn’t shy away from the fact that nearly every early president and other “great” Americans owned slaves and relied on the exploitation of black labor for their own wealth. Viewing the founding fathers as imperfect people who contributed to the freedom of some while remaining complacent in or actively contributing to atrocity might be difficult, but it’s necessary.
The National Civil Rights Museum forces white visitors to do this work.
The museum offers such an intricate look at the federal government’s broken promises during Reconstruction, the legalized horror of Jim Crow, and the continuing frustration of voter suppression, that I found myself taking pictures of display cards and wall mounts to save the information for later. I was also particularly horrified to see in unflinching detail the terror of the KKK’s reign over the south, a horror many black Americans are still living with today.
As I soaked in the Freedom Riders, Bloody Sunday, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Memphis Sanitation Strike, the tension in my stomach grew. Suddenly, I rounded a corner and there I was — in Dr. King’s room. The place he spent his last night on earth.
I’ve been to the Grassy Knoll and the Ford’s Theater, but this was different. There were two middle-aged black women in front of me. They were crying. Not the kind where a small tear rolls down your cheek and you subtly brush it away, but the kind where your throat closes and your shoulders shake and your feel like your heart might crush itself.
They looked to be my mother’s age. They lived through what she did, but on the other side.
For white Americans my age, people who have never experienced structural racial discrimination, it can be so easy to write off the horrors showcased in the National Civil Rights Museum as an unfortunate chunk of our history, rather than something that is very much still happening today.
The KKK, those who upheld Jim Crow, the students who protested integration in public schools — these people were the peers of our grandparents, our parents. Whether or not our families actively participated, we are not removed from this legacy. I was very much aware of this while touring the museum. Never before had I been so aware of my whiteness. And I’m so glad I got called out on it.
Spending nearly four hours there gave me a deeper understanding of all the factors that play into institutionalized racism in 2016: the police brutality, housing discrimination, educational inequality, and a white America that can’t seem to let go of its perceived superiority.
A small expert from this passage of Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham jail was on display in the museum. It has always, and will always, convict me. I invite you, my fellow “white moderates” to look around at 2016 America and take his words to heart:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
As a white woman, a believer in Jesus Christ, and the descendent of a Confederate general, I have a moral responsibility to create an America different than the one that man fought to protect. I need to listen when it’s time to listen. March when it’s time to march. Vote when it’s time to vote. And pray without ceasing.
To plan your own visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, please click here.
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