Day 4 – Civil Rights Tour of the South – The end of the trip
Our last morning of the trip started in Memphis, TN. We started by driving by the Church of God in Christ Mason Temple, which was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final speech, “I Have Been to the Mountain Top.” We listened to the speech as we drove to the site, which helped transport us back in time to the last few days of Dr. King’s life. We also heard the story of how Dr. King was not originally going to speak that night, but he was called to the church after a large crowd had formed expecting to hear him.
After pulling away from that site, we went to see the I Am a Man Plaza in downtown Memphis. It is located next to Clayborn Temple, which was where many of the striking Memphis sanitation workers met during their 1968 strike. It was the strike that led Dr. King to Memphis, and also what led us to our major stop for the day, the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination.
This trip marked my third visit to the museum, and what is amazing to me is that they have continued updating the museum over the years, so every time I left the museum I found myself thinking, this is the best museum I have ever experienced. My first trip came in 2001 as a graduate school journalism student. The experience was amazing, and when I moved to St. Louis I told my wife (girlfriend at the time) that it was something she had to experience. We took the 4-hour drive in 2004, and I was amazed at what they had added to the museum (I’ve also included that picture on the slideshow because I am amused at the writing on the marquee from 2004). They told us then that they were continuing to expand, and I got to see the full transformation on this trip.
This museum tells the entire story of the black experience in the United States, starting with the first slave ships that entered the country. It was an especially meaningful experience to me on this visit, as our tour had just visited so many places that were woven into the museum. This especially struck me as I saw a portrait of Dr. Bernard Lafayette in the museum, since we had met him and spoken with him on the first day of the tour. The highlights of the museum include recreations of a sit-in counter, the bus in which Rosa Parks held her protest, and a burnt out Freedom Ride bus. Ultimately, museumgoers are ushered to see the actual rooms where King and other movement leaders stayed at the time of his assassination. The rooms are recreated to look as they did in 1968, and you can look right outside the window to the balcony where he was killed.
One of the upgrades they have made to the museum was to add an additional area across the street in the building where James Earl Ray supposedly shot King. I write supposedly because much of that information in that area of the museum is committed to whether the evidence truly connects Ray to the assassination, whether he had accomplices, or whether he was involved at all. Any conspiracy theorist would love this part of the museum, as all theories are presented, as well as all potential evidence for each one.
The most haunting part of this second experience was an audio quote I heard. I can’t remember exactly where I heard it in the museum (I think it was on the elevator ride up to the second part of the museum), but I found out online that it was uttered by activist Andrew Young who was with King when he was killed in Memphis. In the “American Experience” film “Roads to Memphis, Young said, “We were never concerned with who killed Martin Luther King, but what killed Martin Luther King.” That statement rattled around in my brain the entire time I was in the second portion of the museum because no matter how interesting all of the theories and background information turned out to be, it didn’t really matter how King’s death happened. Much of what we learned on this trip was that the message of civil rights and social justice in general cannot be broken, no matter what means people stoop to in an effort to quash them.
The two hours that we were allotted in the museum were not enough. I could have spent an entire day in that museum, and not only did I have an amazing time going through and reading information at my own pace, but I had great conversations with students and other staff members in and out of the museum. This served as the end of our trip, and we had a four hour bus ride home, landing right back in our school parking lot where we started only 84 hours earlier.
Stay tuned tonight or tomorrow for a final summary of the trip.