Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ole man river and the Civil Rights era

April 30, Memphis, Tennessee

We had an ambitious plan for this last day in Memphis.  Certainties included going to the National Civil Rights Museum and Mud Island Mississippi River Boardwalk.  Other possibilities included the Memphis Flower Show and the Memphis Zoo.  Since the forecast was predicting high 80s, we decided to go to Mud Island before the temperature became too oppressive.  Since Memphis is on the Mississippi River, we wanted to do explore this aspect of the city. The highlight of Mud Island River Park is a one mile walk that follows a scale model of 954 miles of the lower Mississippi River flowing from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. The model shows the exact topography of the river showing its various depths, floodplains, and levies. You can walk along its path or even wade through the water as if flows south to New Orleans.  This was a great way to learn more about the geography of this mighty river.  The park, a short walk over a bridge from downtown Mississippi, also includes a Mississippi River Museum where you learn more about the history, music, and culture of Mississippi River life.
The bridge walk to Mud Island
Old-time paddlewheel boats for river rides
One of many plaques along the river explaining the history of various points along the way
A scaled view of the meandering river and its tributaries

The city of Memphis serves as a backdrop to the river walk
A mockingbird on the banks of the real river
Paddle boaters in the 1.3 million gallon Gulf Of Mexico model

Vic standing at the mouth of the river at the Gulf of Mexico
After spending the morning at Mud Island, we went about three miles to the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where the National Civil Rights Museum was created. We opted for the self-guided audio tour as we have found the additional information offered via headphones to be the best way to get an in-depth experience of what the museum has to offer.  This museum is arranged as a chronological display of the African-American experience in America.  The first display was a sculpture depicting MLK's final speech given the night before his assassination, the Mountaintop speech.
A small segment of the Mountaintop sculpture
From here, the museum focused on the Middle Passage, the transportation of slaves from Africa to America. Having taught the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison and August Wilson's play The Gem of the Ocean, I am especially sensitive to the horrors of this historical event. The museum paired this focus with a provocative display of the dehumanization of the Negro race.  Especially disturbing to me were images from the 50s and 60s which I remember as a part of my childhood like Little Black Sambo children's books and Uncle Remus in Disney's Song of the South. Seeing several display cases full of these examples of racism made me realize how commonplace it was to put black people in subservient roles when I was a child. It was also fascinating to see the evolution that took place in the media as a part of the struggle to eradicate these pejorative images from advertising, literature, television, and the movies. The museum included television clips from popular shows that I had long ago forgotten about like Julia the nurse played by Diahann Carol (I remember the Julia doll) and I Spy with Bill Cosby.

A depiction of the lunch counter sit-ini

A model of Birmingham jail where King wrote his powerful letter
The rest of the museum focused on key events and figures in the Civil Rights Movement.  As Vic and I were looking at depictions of the numerous events that took place in Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, it reminded us that these peaceful places were are now traveling were once hotbeds of dissent oftentimes leading to violence and bloodshed.

Near the end of the tour, there was an opportunity to see a film about King's final days in Memphis.  He had come to support the sanitation workers' strike and hold a peaceful demonstration.  The Lorraine Hotel was well known as a popular place that welcomed blacks even in earlier decades.  The night before the demonstration, there was a terrible thunderstorm and King was supposed to speak at a church, but thought no one would show up on this stormy night.  Well they did and this was the occasion where he gave his famous "I Have Gone to the Mountaintop" speech where he ironically says, "I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now."  The next evening he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. The killer, James Earl Ray had rented a small room across the street. The tour included going up to the second floor and seeing King's room and the balcony as well as crossing the street and seeing a model of the room Ray rented.  Pretty powerful to stand there thinking how this famous tragic moment transpired.

The balcony where King was assassinated
On the way back to the motorhome, Vic and I talked about our own memories of the Civil Rights era and what we learned about in school ourselves or through the news. We also both taught many of the events we saw depicted in the museum in our social studies classes. Seeing the museum in the South itself made it seem more real as the West Coast provides few reminders of this time in history.

At the end of the day, we both felt emotionally exhausted and physically tired from the heat of the day. It was great to walk into an air-conditioned motorhome, settle in for a quiet night, and be grateful for the freedom and blessings we have in our own lives.

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