Walking in Memphis
“Walking in Memphis” is a catchy, emotive song that everybody’s heard but nobody quite knows what it’s about, other than a guy who ends up walking in Memphis while having a vaguely religious sort of music-inspired, soul-stirring experience.
The irony is this: while in Memphis not long ago, I was advised by the porter at the hotel not to go walking in Memphis.
And I am not making that up.
It was the day after a conference had ended and I was planning to walk to The National Civil Rights Museum, a mere six blocks down South 2nd Street from the hotel, in broad daylight. When I asked the porter for directions, he shook his head somewhat apologetically and told me to take the trolley instead.
Now, I know Memphis is no Disneyworld, but not since Giuliani cleaned up New York City can I recall somebody advising me not to walk a few blocks in a big city in broad daylight, so I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. He said I had. “Take the trolley,” he repeated, pointing up the block.
So I took the trolley, which was actually pretty cool, being a rickety, ancient, wood-paneled affair out of the 1930’s—the Lexington Avenue subway this was not. There were only a handful of other tourists on board, and the windows were down, letting in a warm breeze from the bright sunny street. We rocked along at a fast walk without seeing much of anybody, threatening or otherwise. I got off at the museum stop and walked another block to the museum itself.
If you’ve never seen it, The National Civil Rights Museum isn’t your basic museum with huge drafty rooms lined with statues of dead Romans or glass cases filled with Anglo-Saxon farming tools. It is, rather, a modern structure grafted onto the actual Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. And it is entirely dedicated to the events leading up to, including, and resulting from, that day.
“That day” was April 4, 1968—as any school child would know, not because they read their history books but because they’ve heard the other song about Memphis, the one from U2:
Early morning, April four Shot rings out in the Memphis sky Free at last, they took your life They could not take your pride. Being a rock star and all that, Bono got the date right but the time wrong—the shots in fact rang out in the early evening, April fourth: just after 6 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time), to be precise.
King was standing on the balcony outside his second floor room at the Lorraine Motel, with Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. He was talking to Andrew Young, who was in the parking lot just below with some associates who were going to take King to dinner.
And that is when James Earl Ray, one of those strange losers who make American history what it is, fired a rifle from the bathroom window of a second floor boarding room on the other side of a vacant lot across the street from the Motel, killing King with a bullet in the neck.
Now, earlier in the week I’d made the pilgrimage to Graceland, which sits in a somewhat swankier neighborhood only 7 or 8 miles south of the Lorraine Motel, and had been thoroughly disappointed by the experience.
The ghost of “Fat Elvis,” as John Lennon referred to Presley’s declining years, hung over Graceland like a sequined jacket: everything from the parking lot to the peeling skin of the Elvis jet parked behind a chain-link fence seemed worn and unkempt, and a decrepitly cheesy atmosphere permeated the souvenir shops and the three—three!—fast food places at the visitor center..
(For some weird reason—Graceland is not much more than 10 minutes from the hotels and restaurants of downtown Memphis—the availability and supply of fast food appears to be as much an overriding concern of visitors to Graceland as it was to Elvis himself.)
I got out of there as fast as possible, with a pair of Elvis keychains for my daughters.
Yet the Graceland-infused trepidation I carried into The National Civil Rights Museum vanished immediately upon passing through the ticker counter and entering the very first room, which could in no way be confused with the Rockabilly Diner in the food court at Graceland.
That first room contains—and I am not making this up—a photo gallery of people who have been shot. Not shot and killed, but shot and still alive. Disfigured faces and disfigured bodies are presented plainly to the camera, while below each photograph is a page of text in which the victim tells his or her story first-hand.
The victims are women shot by their boyfriends, young men shot by gangs, innocent middle-aged bystanders shot by thieves—maybe 20 or 30 in all, but you lose count as you become immersed in their stories, which are graphic, brutal, and astonishingly detailed. After not at first wanting to actually read them but to get on with the museum itself, you want to read them all. The point—that people with guns destroy lives in the most random, unexpected, shocking, painful ways—is emphatic.
Next, there is the small auditorium with the obligatory introductory film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s times—a modest disappointment after the powerfully graphic photo gallery, being long on stirring words and short on details.
Finally, however, you leave the theater and enter a long, twisting, gently-sloping corridor that slowly takes you to the second floor of the Lorraine Hotel as it was when King died there. Along the walls, the story of the Civil Rights movement slowly unfolds through black-and-white pictures, recorded speeches, newspaper stories, the voices of those who participated, and key documents.
There are the famous Life Magazine photographs of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on young men and young women, of sweating Civil Rights marchers, firey speech-makers, and smiling KKK men facing trial in friendly courtrooms; and then there are the more gruesome photographs that didn’t make Life: lynched bodies slouching from nooses tied to tree branches. There is, as well, the burned out Freedom Rider bus itself and a life-size recreation of the famous lunch counter scene. The cumulative effect of all this is to enumerate the hardships, setbacks, atrocities and small breakthroughs of the era in a way no A&E documentary can do.
Finally, on the second floor, you come to King’s own room and the balcony beyond, the voices of Andrew Young and others with him at the end ringing in your ears.
You emerge from the motel blinking and dazed, shocked to recall how this country was dragged kicking and screaming into some semblance of tolerance and legal notions of equality.
But that’s not the end of the museum.
Across the street and through a tunnel beneath the vacant lot is an elevator that takes you up inside the boarding house where Ray sat by a window, waited for his moment and shot King. After the powerful images of the Lorraine Motel, the displays of James Earl Rays’ personal effects and the story of his two month flight and subsequent capture at Heathrow Airport are mundane, banal and pathetic—and therefore easily as striking as the images of the movement he thought he could stop.
After spending far more time than I’d planned to spend at what is commonly called the King Shrine, I emerged into a bright sun, walked the six blocks back to my hotel on hot, mostly empty sidewalks, and left for the airport.
Go to Graceland if you must, but visit the Lorraine Motel for sure.
Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up
© 2006 Jeff Matthews
The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.