Monday, July 30, 2012

From Civil War to Civil Rights

I found the ‘history-teacher-wanna-be’ hidden deep inside me earlier this summer when I journeyed to Virginia to visit Jamestown, Antietam, Fort Monroe and Monticello, some of which I have already written about.  It was not really my intention to awaken the ol’ college years’ history nerd, but I was happily surprised that he was still in there. I had intended on making it to Washington, DC and see the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art. I never made it there.
But a theme of sorts has emerged in my serendipitous wanderings. I will call it “From Civil War to Civil Rights… with a Musical Interlude.” [The Musical Interlude will come later!]
Do you remember where you were on April 4th, 1968?  I was an 11 year old kid watching TV, of course, when one of those old fashioned ‘breaking news alerts’ came on.  “We interrupt this show to bring you the following news alert.”
It was the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had been shot on the balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I have vague pre-teen memories of what it all meant. I was only a kid and not necessarily up on current events. But I knew the news was not good for our country.  I had youthful ‘flashback’ to President Kennedy’s assassination, when I was in the 1st Grade in Seattle as the teacher cried and tried to explain why school was getting out a little early that day.

But I also remember my mom, usually the most open-minded and welcoming role model, mumbling something  about “ a trouble maker.” It surprised me at the time, seeing as her sister had married a Panamanian man, completely dark skinned and my cousins, whom I ADORED, were ‘black’ though not technically African-American. They were my FAMILY for goodness sake!  I think it was a weak moment for Anna. She had her own inner struggles, after all.  She brought me up better than that comment illustrates.

The images from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee flashed across the screen that day and in the newspapers for days to come. Two months later, on June 6th, similar horrible images rendered America numb when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. It was not a good year in America.

The iconic Lorraine Motel sign was a particular image that become imbedded in my young psyche and has lingered with me over the years.  So, on a trip through Memphis I was hoping to at least catch a  glimpse of it – if it was even still there.


 Not only is it there, but it is the site of one of the most moving, inspirational and educational museums I have ever visited – and I visit a LOT of museums.  

At times I hear myself and others refer to ‘the civil rights movement of the 60’s” as if everything was accomplished in one short, tumultuous decade of American history.  Well, a LOT was accomplished 50 years ago, but the overwhelming struggle, stories, heartache, bravery, sacrifice… the day to day, life and death, success to setback, toil and triumph are chronicled here in Memphis in a much longer timeline and with more thoughtful explanation than I had ever imagined.  And it is situated in a place of tragic consequence that I think should leave every visitor breathless, pensive and prayerful.  It left me as such.

A protest sign from the Memphis garbage collecters
strike. King was in Memphis to address the
inhumane conditions of the striking workers
I hate to be a promoter of yet one more thing that “other people should do just because I did it.” But you should try and get there.  You owe it to your children to not only teach them this history, but let them see it and feel it.

Wow, I sure do get preachy. Even on Sabbatical.

Reenactment display of a
'lunch counter protest' of the 1960's

“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 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've Been to the Mountaintop”, April 3, 1968.       He was killed the next day.

Where MLK lay daying of
an assassin's bullet. The small piece of concrete
has been removed where the bloodstain
could not be completely cleaned up.
Less than 48 hours later after leaving Memphis, I was once again on a Civil War battlefield, this time in Vicksburg, Mississippi. And there men, white AND black, laid down their lives to begin a long, long and hard fought battle for equality.  From Civil War to Civil Rights. It took one hundred years. And the struggle, actually, still continues.

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