January 15, 2018

April 4, 1968

Today is the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. As I have done each year the Washington Wizards have played at home on this holiday since I started writing this blog, today I am publishing a post dedicated to the memory of Dr. King. Each year I have done this I have strived to write about a site I have visited that is related to today's holiday. Last year, I ran out of sites that I'd seen in person so I wrote a quick history of the civil rights movement. This year, I am back to writing about places I've visited.

In the early evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was standing outside room 306 on the front balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  Across the street from the motel in a boarding house, James Earl Ray, an escaped convict with multiple convictions, was aiming his 30-06 Remington rifle right at him. He fired and hit Dr. King in the neck with a single shot. About an hour later, at 7:05 that evening, Dr. King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital in Memphis. Just like that, the most visible leader of the civil rights movement since the mid-1950s was gone.

The Lorraine Motel is still standing today, although not as a waystop for travelers passing through Memphis but instead as the National Civil Rights Museum. I visited Memphis for the second time earlier this month and the Museum was the number one spot on my list to visit. Yes, I missed it the first time I was in town, likely because I was focused on my own agenda of taking in as much musical history as possible and not really paying attention to more important subjects above and beyond my own needs. There's a lesson there, I think.

The museum is spread over a number of buildings: the original Lorraine Motel to the south and a series of (now) interconnected buildings to the north, including the boarding house where Ray fired the shot that killed Dr. King. The exhibits in the Lorraine Motel building cover the beginning of the slave trade; then address the Jim Crow era in the United States after the Civil War; then finish with the civil rights movement up to April 4, 1968. Across the street, the exhibits focus on the assassination of Dr. King and the aftermath; the aftermath here meaning both what happened right after the assassination and the position of minorities and women in American society since that time.

The Museum is an uncomfortable place to be and deservedly so. If I wasn't uncomfortable then I would really start to question my basic humanity. There are many many exhibits that made me realize just how cruel we as humans can be to people who are so little different than we are.

The unease starts in the first room after passing through the rotating exhibit space right after buying your ticket, a room dedicated to the slave trade that occurred almost as soon as Europeans arrived in West Africa in the 1400s. The facts and stories are chilling. It was the largest forced migration in the history of the world; an estimated 12.5 million Africans were involuntarily removed from their homes and transported across the Atlantic Ocean as property. By the year 1820, nearly 4 Africans arrived in the new world as property for every one European.

It doesn't stop at numbers. There is a cross sectional diagram of a cargo ship showing the tiny space that the people were transported in. The space allocated to their human cargo is staggering, a condition made all the more obvious by a full scale mockup of a section of the hold in the Museum. There's no space whatsoever for people to move to even extend their limbs just a bit. The sounds of the ship's wood creaking, people coughing and chains clinking piped into the room emphasize the point while I'm sure not conveying even a small degree of how awful it was. The terrazzo floor of the first room explains how these conditions "seasoned" the slaves, making them used to abuse and disease, presumably making them more valuable for having survived the ocean voyage, as if it was actually a market-facing strategy to increase the value of the products being offered. 

The Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865, was supposed to have fixed all that, right? No way. As I wrote last year in my post, the Federal Government pretty much turned a blind eye to what the states in the Union were doing with their laws after the withdrawal of Union troops from the former Confederate states in 1877. How did they think that was going to go, assuming they thought about it much at all?

The response was for each state to adopt lots of rules. I don't mean things like poll taxes and literacy tests to votes with "grandfathered" exceptions that allowed all illiterate whites to vote like I wrote about last year. I mean laws and codes that were so specific in some cases as to be excessively picky and petty. Prohibitions on children of different races playing together. Bans on different races playing pool or billiards (not just one or the other; no loopholes here) together. Restrictions on white and non-white marching bands playing in the same parades. Just unbelievably specific codes to prevent any notion of equality. 

And it wasn't just the South. If there's one message that hit home loud and clear for me in the National Civil Rights Museum it was that this was (and is) an American problem, not a problem that only existed (and exists) in the former Confederate states. California passed a law in 1906 that prohibited intermarriage between whites and blacks and whites and mulattos (their word, not mine). And there is a lynching map of the United States that shows every known lynching in the country including occurrences in California, New Mexico, Idaho and, well, every state actually. I think we tend to think today of places like California and Oregon as places of acceptance and integration. I think we are likely fooling ourselves if we think there's no more work to be done everywhere, including those places.

There are a lot of historical artifacts and a lot of stories throughout the Museum. Some, like the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins in multiple locations, will likely be familiar to most people. Stories of people being beaten unconscious by angry mobs of white people for no other reason than supporting a non-white's right to ride a bus across state lines are despicable but obviously true.

But there are a lot of stories that I just didn't know about. In addition to making me understand the national nature of the civil rights struggle, the Museum also made me realize how hard it was to overcome laws and actions everywhere. By that I don't mean every state, I mean every county, every campus, every town and every street. Rescinding oppressive laws or rules wasn't going to help. The people that fought to try to erase a little of the institutionalized inequality did it bit by bit and inch by inch. I can't imagine how frustrating and discouraging it must have been to engage in that struggle every hour, day, week and month.

The first portion of the Museum ends at a spot between the original Lorraine Motel rooms 306 and 307, which were two of the rooms rented by Dr. King's party. Each room is reconstructed to show what it would have looked like at the time but more importantly, it allows you to see the boarding house across the street where Ray fired his rifle. It's the small second floor, white painted window in the building right above the tunnel to which is the gateway to the Museum's second half.

The view from where Dr. King would have been standing to where Ray fired his rifle.
The opposite view: from Ray's vantage-point towards the Lorraine Motel. The wreath marks room 306.

There is far more to see in the first half of the Museum than in the series of buildings which include the boarding house Ray was using as his assassin's perch. But the second half of the place has some essential exhibits. The first rooms are focused on Ray's flight and capture and the circumstances leading up to the assassination, including some very obvious coverage by the local media and police about just where Dr. King would be staying. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist (call me naïve and I'll probably agree with you) but it kind of makes it easy for someone to kill someone else if you let the whole world know where the target of a murder is going to be when he or she is in town, right?

Dr. Martin Luther King was 39 years old on April 4, 1968. It seems amazing to me that he was that young considering the leadership role he played in the civil rights movement for more than a decade. Within one week of his death President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited the sale, rental or financing of housing on the basis of race, religion, national origin or sex. The Fair Housing Act was the last significant piece of civil rights legislation ever passed. I'm not sure if our government thought that was enough or what, but it certainly didn't fix everything. We still haven't fixed everything. We are still talking about a lot of these same issues today and leadership, if you can call it that, at the top isn't helping one bit.

If you are a first time visitor to Memphis, I'd encourage you to add the Museum to your must see list. Even if you think you have no interest or are cynical about what's inside. There's surely something in there that must touch the humanity in all of us. If you do, give it some time; we spent a little more than three hours in the place (with a stop for lunch between the two parts) and we didn't read everything in there by any stretch of the imagination. 

Wizards - Bucks today at 2. Go Wizards!

The Lorraine Motel's reconstructed room 307.

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