Last weekend brought me to Memphis, TN. It was my first time in Memphis. My friend Chris and I ate our way through the city, enjoying barbecue, fried chicken, donuts, and other southern fare. Chris is the pastor of Renewal Church, a diverse church in a city that has a history of division and pain.
On Friday we went to site of the Lorraine Motel. It has now been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. We parked in the available lot and, as the motel came into view, I was instantly struck with the heaviness of the place. I had seen pictures and heard the accounts of what had happened there. I think there was a familiarity with the scene that was deeper within my subconscious than I could have realized or accessed. The vintage 60s-era sign, the small 2-story motel, the vintage cars parked slightly askew in front of it, just under the railing where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated – all of it felt familiar and sacred.
We got there early enough in the day to beat most of the school tour groups. So, Chris and I had most of the exhibits to ourselves. The National Civil Rights Museums is a powerful, visceral experience. The exhibits are filled with pictures of events and individuals, newpaper clippings, stories and backstories, rolling videos and clips, and physical displays that bring you into the world of the Civil Rights Era. We boarded a real Birmingham bus with a statue of Rosa Parks and were confronted with a recording of a bus driver yelling at us to get to the back of the bus as we walked through. We sat at a lunch counter and watched stomach-churning images of sit-ins.
As we wandered through, trying to begin to take in the experience in its fullness, we slowly made our way up a ramp. One last turn of a corner and we were looking out the windows of the Lorraine Motel, and my stomach dropped. Two hotel rooms have been preserved from that night. An ashtray full of cigarettes, a tray of food, rusted out old air conditioners built into the wall. This was the place that Dr. King spent his last moments. He had just preached on seeing over the mountaintop, that the Promised Land was in view. From this view we could see the window that the coward James Earl Ray stood behind, straddling a bathtub when he took his shot. Later we crossed the street to tour the boarding house and learn more about the manhunt that finally led to the arrest of the killer.
Seeing the pictures of Dr. King surrounded by his friends and co-laborers in his last moments while standing in that same place was heart-wrenching. A photographer caught it all – the reactions of his companions pointing toward the boarding house even as they wrapped their beloved friend in a bedspread from the motel room. A cultural prophet had been gunned down and killed.
I’m still untying the mix of emotions a week later. I don’t expect it to become simplified or even clear anytime soon. One thing that stood out and seemed to cut through the heaviness for me was an extraordinary sense of gratitude. I’m grateful for Dr. King and his tireless work and leadership. I’m grateful for those who stood alongside him and fought for justice and good. After spending time immersed in reading and relearning our nations's racial history, this museum helped me see even more how far we have come, and yet we still have so far to go. Dr. King's final words from the evening before still ring profound and poignant:
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
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