I made a short trip to Memphis this week. It would have been even shorter, but my flight home got canceled. Can’t win ’em all. After taking a few naps, a few Tylenol Cold & Flu tablets, and several showers (my rescheduled flight dropped me directly in the back row, a.k.a. the smelly, weird part of the plane), I found myself getting lost in photos from Wednesday afternoon.
Memphis and the Mountaintop
After speaking at a middle school near the Memphis city limits, I had just enough time to see the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel. Though the museum is undergoing renovations, there was still so much to see and learn. After spending some time in the museum itself, I walked over to the Lorraine and made my way up onto the balcony, and the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
I hesitated at the top step. When I reached the landing in front of room 306, I didn’t stay long. Others posed for photos there, but that didn’t feel right for me. I looked out across the street and hurried along. I know what I learned in school about this place, but being there? It was overwhelming.
After settling into my seat on the plane home, I pulled out my iPhone and scrolled to one of my favorite songs (one I tend to listen to when I am feeling stuck), Patty Griffin’s Up to the Mountain, inspired by Dr. King’s last speech, delivered in Memphis the day before he was killed. And I thought about what he said that day. There were parts that I wanted to re-read, including this:
Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively…the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.
We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.
I thought about what that speech must have stirred in people. And how powerful words can be.
And I thought about why I wanted to go to the museum, and specifically the motel, that day. In some ways, it’s like pressing a bruise to make sure it still hurts. I think that is such a perfect expression. You know the place is there, you know what evil transpired, but you still need to go and stand there.
My parents were in high school when Dr. King was shot and killed on that balcony. This wasn’t something that happened ages ago. That may be what I wrestled with the most on my way home.
When I was in college, I visited a town that still had separate cemeteries: one for black people, one for white people. That was 2002. Less than a month ago, I read about students hosting their first integrated prom. This is 2013. Racism, classism, sexism, prejudice, unfair and unkind treatment of our fellow human beings– some of the bruises have faded; many are still fresh for the pressing.
Earlier in the day, I talked with a group of sixth and seventh-graders about the importance of telling your story. That’s how we break down barriers, and undo needless fear, I told them.
… Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. 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. 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.
I am so grateful to those who tell the stories we’d rather not hear, the ones we’d prefer to forget, the ones we learn from. I am grateful for the progress that has been made. There’s so much to be hopeful about. And I know there is still work to be done. I am certain I carry my own baseless fears and prejudices, and so it’s obvious where my work starts.
The National Civil Rights Museum is a non-profit organization. Please consider making a donation in support of their work. And if you’re in Memphis, carve out some time to visit.
Also On Tap for Today:
What’s on your travel bucket list?