If it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four to go and you’ve already laced up your blue suede shoes, then you might just be in Memphis. Beale Street, Blues City, Barbecue & B.B. King’s….It is a southerner’s delight all on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river. These people even have ducks swimming in a fountain at the Peabody Hotel lobby. It almost sounds like perfect backdrop for a modern day millennial version of something like Tom Sawyer meets the city.
In 1991 I was listening to the radio when this song came on: Walking in Memphis. I’d never been there and honestly had no reason to ever go. Fast forward to May 2016 and a big crew of us went to the International Music Festival: Memphis in May. Among many, many bands were the Violent Femmes. I was immediately transported back to my high school years…going wild like a blister in the sun (Remember Jennifer Enten—I’m not sure who was the most excited…?).
Today we’re at 450 Mulberry Street…the famed Lorraine Motel…now the site of National Civil Rights Museum. On that fateful day, April 4, 1968—50 years ago this week James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King, Jr. on this site. Honestly, we had no idea our spring break trip coincided with this milestone anniversary, but this site is a must see for Americans seeking to understand where we’ve been…and more importantly where we’re going. Contemplating the events of that day on these hallowed grounds takes me back…way, way back…. to the first recollection of why there are differences among people and why civil rights remain a hot button issue.
(The National Civil Rights Museum is built around the Motel. Visitors walk through where the exhibits end with a view into MLK’s room, # 306. He was standing on the balcony where this wreath is placed when he was struck by bullet).
Attending Charlotte NC public elementary schools in the early 1970’s meant being exposed to a world of desegregated schools with busing in their early days. Our school days began saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Yes, back then at Huntingtown Farms Elementary we were still “One nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” We grew up thinking it was normal for teachers to take a head count for the “free lunch” & “reduced price” program. We thought it was normal for our teachers to count the number of caucasians, black students, and “other” races. In retrospect it’s now clear they were collecting data for tracking purposes and for federal subsidy metric purposes.
(Part of an interactive exhibit regarding fall out from the Brown v. Board of Education fall out. My hometown saw its share of unrest.)
For the most part all of my elementary school classmates were, in spirit, the same. There were, of course, some cultural differences. However, kids will be kids. Loving to play kickball at recess, grossing out at cardboard pizza in the lunch room, getting excited about filmstrips (remember those…lol) and griping about homework. School was pretty much school.
It’s when we hit Junior High School (that’s old school speak for Middle School, grades 7-9 back in the day) when differences really began to creep in and open a chasm. Friends, however, remained friends and people with perspective saw beyond immaterial matters of race, demographics and cultural differences to solidify relationships.
Babies are born completely impartial and unbiased as to the cultures unlike theirs or to races different from theirs. Children tend to follow the example of their parents. If the parents are racist, then they are exposed to this behavior and have a propensity to mirror this (although not always: think Archie Bunker and his daughter, Gloria…extreme example, I know). If we are taught at an early age to be open minded, then we are likely to be more inclusive of people who look and act differently than we do. Who remembers wondering why Maria on Sesame Street spoke Spanish or why at some point Bob was an African American man?
If we are all created in the image of God, then what must God look like? Rosa Parks, Joe Biden, your pastor, Mother Teresa, the homeless guy we pass on the square in uptown, Mike Pence, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, your kid’s preschool teacher, Trey Gowdy, the check out clerk at Walgreens…. The point: God is reflected in every human being (albeit some people actively squelch the divine and succumb to evil). We have a duty to love one another. It remains, as far as I am concerned, the highest calling of humankind.
I have come to deeply appreciate Dr. King’s vision and work. It is a brutally honest statement to say that for years people have have thought MLK’s work was an attempt to diminish more predominant races. Alternatively, all he sought was for all people…black, Hispanic, white, Jewish, Muslim, you name the race to have an equal opportunity to have access to the same educational opportunities, the same employment opportunities, the same healthcare standards, the same civic treatment, and the same adjudication by the legal system as white Americans had enjoyed for decades. While it would seem reasonable to think this should already have been the standard, we all know it was not. It scared people watching the civil rights movement unfold; it continues to scare people.
(The room above is the view into room 306. The view from behind the wreath shows the boarding house across Mulberry Street from where the fatal shot was fired. It is also part of the museum and exhibits.)
It’s not a liberal or conservative or a libertarian or a socialist thing…it is not even a political thing. If we dumb it down I think we are here: Several hundred million Americans living on U.S. soil…this “melting pot” of cultures. We have to get along, peacefully coexist and move forward as a nation. To accomplish this requires working with one another. Sometimes the behaviors and prejudices we learn in our early years stand in our way; often external forces perpetuate tears in our social fabric.
What role does the media play in all of this? If you’ve ever read one of my blogs, then you know I blame A LOT of America’s societal decay on media (yes, here I go again). I sincerely believe people generally get along. However, to watch the media sensationalize each story, to watch reporters dramatize, to observe the day in – day out exploitation of human struggle among dissimilar and misunderstood people IS simply another way they characterize themselves as the lowest level of bottom feeding “entertainment” outlets.
There remains no question racial strife exists. However, media fuels the fire with continual, relentless, probing 24 hour a day coverage. Take an otherwise peaceful protest and put a news camera on it and the probability of incidents transpiring rises. Publicize a “march” online before it happens and a city can become inundated with people from out of town causing mayhem (i.e., the Keith Scott police shooting protests in Charlotte, NC in September, 2016—many of the protestors were from out of town. CNN, MSNBC & FOX News couldn’t get enough—and this was not a racially motivated shooting by the way; Google the story if you’re interested).
It used to truly offend me that “they” honored Martin Luther King’ with an official federal holiday. I struggled for years with this. We close for for the birth of Jesus Christ; we close for a combined recognition for Honest Abe & the Father of our Country, George Washington, for President’s Day. But, to close and have a day off for a civil rights leader? What’s next? Billy Graham Day or Oprah day? In recent years my perspective has changed: here is why. MLK accomplished his work as a man of God, in peace. Had he lived he would have continued to promote bettering oneself through work ethic, education, faith, mentoring and family values.
In a generation where the divisive problems Dr. King brought to the forefront have grown, Americans need to be reminded of our responsibility as citizens to be neighbors, to be kind and to help one another. I won’t steal MLK’s line and ask if you have a dream. But I will ask what is your hope for how we can each work to leave a more positive mark on our community and the people with whom we coexist?
We cannot expect government to legislate Dr. King’s sweet dream; our lawmakers cannot agree on anything it seems. They turn every issue — highlighted by media pressure and attention (there I go again) which in turn puts the squeeze on them to act in such a way to get them re-elected and play party politics rather than do what’s right for the country — into a nightmare. Let me shorten that sentence: the government legislates Dr. King’s vision into a regulatory nightmare. All Americans eventually pay a steep price for this.
People at a basic human level simply want to be heard, simply want to be loved and simply want to be understood. It is an oversimplification to explain the complexities of the psyche with 3 things people “simply want” statement However, these three go a long way toward breaking down communication barriers when we take time, one-on-one, to communicate and reach out a hand in friendship.
Anne Frank suffered and died at the hands of the Nazi’s. Although this young and hopeful girl didn’t survive hiding out trying to get away from the ultimate hatred and racism she left us a gift. It is her attitude. In the shadows of a scared soul not knowing how her life would unfold or how little time she ultimately had left to live she recorded a POWERFUL message we should all adopt. It is a mantra we can all live by and remember when we encounter people…especially people who are different than we are. In her diaries Anne Frank wrote
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”