Just returned to my Crescent City from the Blues city, a wonderful visit. It was my 7th or 8th trip and most of them were reached by taking the City of New Orleans train there and back.
I like Memphis. I like Southern places where food is central, the air is humid and music flows around and between everything. I like those places because the white assimilated American does not always lead the culture and because of that, old informal ties are often remembered and valued. When I say that last bit to people, they look at me with a doubtful look, and often with some irritation. But it is significant that the South remains conflicted AND multi-cultural. The history of our country is not one story and the South has always known that. Known it and embraced it even with the understanding that many of its own stories are horrific.
To live in Southern cities is to be always dealing with the history of how we all arrived here and attempting to pair that with figuring out how we are all to live together moving forward.
Many white Americans remain obsessed with our arrival only (the version taught) and the narrative of “Manifest Destiny.” Let me be clear-I’m not asking white Americans to apologize for all of the world’s woes or to forget the wonderful things many have done. But to ignore the shared history is what keeps us from fixing it.
White Southerners (especially) will shake their head and say, ” Aren’t we over this race issue yet?” and usually talk about loss of jobs among white people or legislation passed decades ago meant to correct the issue. Although blatant individual racism is less visible, it still exists and institutional racism remains and has even expanded in some arenas. So no, we’re NOT over this race issue yet.
To address some of that lack of awareness, Memphis seems to be a good place to start. Its a place where the North and West can be introduced to the narratives of the South and therefore their own national history. Two places to begin are the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) and the Stax Museum.
As hopefully everyone knows, the NCRM is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. It has been built around the motel and even includes the boarding house that the killer stayed.
The museum is a magnificent recounting of the 20th century civil rights movement for African-Americans. It has incredible detailed exhibits for each piece and for the major figures. At the end, you walk between the two rooms that King and his colleagues stayed in and stand quite near to where King was standing when he was killed. You’ll weep throughout. You’ll learn.
Here’s a few things I learned:
About the Highlander Folk School, founded in 1932 in Monteagle TN. This school was instrumental in training generations of organizers.
More information about CORE, (which I had long admired.) This group started the Freedom Rides, later taken up by many others including Students for Non-Violent Coordination (SNCC)
That in 1965 Stokely Carmichael signed up 600 voters in McComb MS, a very dangerous time and place to be doing that work.
That although African- Americans were 42% of the Mississippi population in 1960, only 6% were registered to vote.
That Bogalusa LA, reputed to have more KKK members than any other city began the Deacons for Defense and Justice as a white “self-defense league and soon had more than 50 chapters. (I’d like to know how many Tea party members it now claims)….
That somehow after forcing the sanitation workers to strike in Memphis (which leads to them asking MLK to come to assist them in April of 1968), the strike was quickly settled 15 days after the assassination.
That MLK was always eloquent on how economic disparities were at the base of the civil rights movement.
That the divisions of the movement became quite apparent on James Meredith’s attempted march from Memphis to Jackson, because movements splinter when tactics become more important than the goals.
It should be necessary for every American child to go through this museum. It would be a good place for all Americans to start to link their own family and cultural history to those events in the South and realize how each of us connect through them.
After you leave the main museum, you travel across the street to the boarding house where the killer Ray, stayed. Also impressively done, it resists obsessing over the motivation of the man, because a) how can we know it and b) his story was not an unique one. Instead, after showing you the facts of Ray’s time there (and a very good analysis of the many conspiracy theories) it takes you through a timeline of other political assassinations, and unfortunately, a too-short view of some of the current work being done to address inequalities.
Speaking of inequalities, the protest outside by Jacqueline Smith (24 years and 9 months and counting) is ongoing. She was the last resident of the Lorraine motel and has vowed to never leave. She has gentrification language on her sign and speaks calmly and openly to those who approach her when they approach her that way.
We did that museum first and the next day, did the Stax museum. Stax (or Soulsville USA) was the home of one of the great music artist rosters in the 1950s through the 1970s and was a place that celebrated the joyful, romantic music that is soul. This, my second visit was even better than the first. I went with 2 friends who have impressive knowledge and collections of music and yet this was their first time at the museum, so to see it with them was fun.The staff was wonderful and mostly young and African-American; one of the young woman spent some time with us sharing how she came to work at Stax (after remembering volunteer time as a child cleaning the empty lot where Stax had been and where the museum is again) and the sense of pride and ownership was evident in her demeanor.
The documentary at the beginning of the tour covers how the assassination of King changed everything at Stax; no longer could black and white musicians and writers work side by side. The pain and sadness at the turn of events is evident on all of the faces in the movie, yet all Stax alumni clearly returned at some point and claimed their shared history with the building of the museum, the charter school and music academy. That the school and the academy are already operating (the museum only opened in 2003) is another example of how our good and bad history try to share purpose in the South.
Here’s an example of not having shared history; before my first visit there, I had never heard of Wattstax, the soul festival Stax threw in LA in 1972 to benefit Watts community groups. Over 125,000 African-Americans came together to dance and celebrate with the Stax family without any of the incidents such as the police had predicted. I’ve read dozens of articles and books on 1960s history and like everyone, have seen copious amounts of Woodstock coverage, but had never come across the Wattstax story. It takes time and openness to learn the hidden history of your own time.
Our shared history therefore to me resembles a faded, torn and re-sewn quilt. Full of pieces that don’t fit together perfectly or with designs that might clash but do still need to remain together.
And if you go to Memphis first, you might then begin to understand the pieces that represent New Orleans, Jackson, Birmingham, Greensboro and so on.
Take the time.