Monday, March 31, 2008

Many faces of freedom

Not all the exhibits at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis are about famous people. There are many faces of freedom represented--many ordinary faces. Such was the March on Washington (for jobs and freedom, 1963) where over 200 thousand gathered. The crowd was moved by one of the world's most famous speeches, "I Have a Dream", by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the more turbulent situations in 1968 is depicted with a garbage truck, strewn garbage and a line of marchers with signs saying, "I AM A MAN." Frustration about the recent deaths of 2 workers prompted poor sanitation workers in Memphis to strike in protest of the neglectful and abusive treatment of black workers. They were joined daily by supporters including ministers, high school and college students and others asking for decent pay and conditions. The mayor was unmoved and police used mace and tear gas against nonviolent demonstrators. Violence began to erupt at a later demonstration involving thousands and chaos ensued. King spoke to the sanitation workers the night before his death.

Entering into these visual stories I feel dragged down and begin to emotionally limp along to the next one and the next. Though I was a child, then a young teen during this time, I am struck by being on the wrong side. My peers and I had no clue what was transpiring--not really. These things look familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like a time-warped dream reality. Questions of how? and why? over and over in my head make me want to scream. If I scream loud enough maybe a shift will happen.

Shameful: my home town, Albany, GA, has its own wall at the museum. MLK was jailed 3 times there in '61 and '62. In fact the jails in the whole area were filled, but I will get to Albany later.

One of the last parts of our tour was looking into Room 306 itself. It is pretty morbid that King's room is presented as it looked in 1968 the day of his assassination. Only a few feet away is the famous balcony. I try not to let my imagination create the gunshot and the blood. The final focus of the museum expands into human rights movements throughout the world, challenging us to act to make a difference wherever injustice and discrimination exist. Outside, across the courtyard (the direction the shot came from) I see a message that transcends the climax of April 4, 1968: "I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land." (from the Mountain Top speech in Memphis only days before)

more info:
march on washington: here, here, and here
memphis sanitation strike: here

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lookin' at history

Whose history? Mine and not mine. Kind of surreal--and very heartbreaking. In 1968, as a white woman in Memphis, I would probably not have been near the Lorraine Motel, but that is where history happened on April 4th of that year. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the second floor balcony where a large white wreath now hangs. It is part of the museum that chronicles key episodes of the American civil rights movement, all the way back to 1619.

We were going to go through as quickly as possible because we had to drive all the way to Albany in southwest GA that day. It could be late at night when we arrived. Apparently we weren't in control because we had to first wait at the ticket desk and then be shuttled into a theater room for an introductory film before being held another little while as 2 large groups went through ahead of us. I decided to chill, in the context of what I was about to see, and in contrast with historically who has been holding who back, up to now. After receiving our headphones and audio tour we proceeded at our own pace. I found I actually wanted to slow down to read further and digest the extra information not highlighted on the audio.

The interpretive exhibits begin with the unremitting struggle against slavery and racism. The audio, recorded by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, points us to significant events, people, and legal decisions. We learn more about people like W. E. B. DuBois, as well as the Ku Klux Klan, NAACP, and other organizations opposing and supporting the movement. I was not allowed to take pictures, but I wish I could show how well done the museum is and how different parts moved me to tears. (I am including photos from the museum brochure, post card, and Southern Living article.)

I climb on board a Montgomery city bus on display and there is Rosa Parks (statue) sitting where she doesn't belong. When I sit down, the bus driver's angry voice repeatedly tells us to move to the back. That is not the only bus represented. We also see a replica of the firebombed Greyhound bus which was destroyed in Alabama. The Freedom Riders, who were protesting illegal segregation on buses and trains, were beaten and arrested as they got off the bus. President Kennedy sent Federal Marshals to protect a second team of freedom riders that were dispatched.

One of my favorite displays was a full-size Woolworth's lunch counter where a sit-in was going on. The audio and video show how viciously the opposition fought to keep the counter segregated. I have to say I was embarrassed to be white and wanted to drop to my knees and cry in grief and repentance for what my race did/does to another race. The sickening thing is how much was justified for Christian reasons!
There were so many protests and so many issues involved: decent jobs and decent wages, admission to schools and universities, voting rights and participation, urban dilemmas of unemployment, poverty, and hunger. Marchers and protesters were at times beaten, jailed, and even fire-hosed. Governors and police chiefs refused to provide protection and were often responsible for orders to stop protesters in violent ways. It seems like such madness looking back at the 50's and 60's, but when segregation was the norm it must have been terrifying for the white community to think of how their way of life (and control) was being threatened. --Let them into your schools today and tomorrow they will be marrying your daughters. (OMG!)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Griping about lost time and glimpsing the Memphis ghetto

Our road trip was affected by a small quirk: T. had to find Starbucks coffee whenever possible. This can mean detours off the highway directed by some gut level instinct of where Starbucks should be. Perhaps near a newish mall or bookstore? Maybe down this road or that? We toured through Lawrence, KS this way and got to our friends' in KC a bit later than I had hoped. (By the way, Lawrence seems pretty cool and Boulderesque.) The next day this got on my nerves big time after driving around 45 minutes not knowing where we were, I'm guessing somewhere near Springfield, MO (I'm terrible about remembering what towns we stay in along the way and where we got gas, etc. But, T. remembers it all, including where the Starbucks were on his last trip.) Since there are at least 2 colleges in Springfield, a Starbucks must be nearby, right? Wrong. This photo shows what finally saved T.'s a*_*_ (life) as we were about to drive on. I would hate to say that this is the exact reason we were a bit late getting into Memphis, but....

(Do other couples have tension over dumb stuff like this?)

We approached Memphis from the west side. We were looking for 2 things: a motel for the night and the area where the Civil Rights Museum was so we would be able to find it easily in the morning. The museum had closed at 5 p.m. That night I hoped to go to Beale St. and hear some music. We are blues and jazz fans. That would be so fun. We didn't realize how close to Beale we were, but we must have been driving around it and away from it. The first thing I noticed was how "bombed out" everything looked. "In complete disrepair" would be a very nice way of saying it. We got a good look at neighborhood after neighborhood that looked like it should be condemned. On one avenue a woman was walking in the traffic lane toward us, eyes glazed and completely out of it. It was a very scary area. I felt so sad about the conditions I saw. I imagined the poverty, lack of opportunities, slumlords, and inattention, combined with substance abuse and hopelessness, were big factors in the history of this side of Memphis. Where are the advocates for solutions here? I hope there are some. I am ignorant of what is actually being done to turn things around. It must be a hard battle to raise the quality of life in what appears to be so unchangeable in the poorest of the poor areas. Memphis was the worst place we saw in terms of poverty and abandoned and literally burned-out buildings. We wondered if the most desperate parts of New Orleans would have been similar. We drove down several highways trying to find a place to stay, wishing we had found out about a decent place or booked ahead of time. We ended up south of the state line in MS. I still wanted to head back up to Beale St., but it didn't happen. We stayed in our little motel area enclave near chain restaurants. I must have been wanting comfort food by then because I kept suggesting Zaxby's (chicken place with sweet tea.) I was outvoted for reason of "too much traffic" (do Chris Farley finger quotes here) on that side of the road, and instead we tried a family-run local Mexican restaurant and then hung out at the motel with the weather channel and The Secret Life of Bees. I couldn't get my nose out of that book.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Intentions, prayers, and bees

Leaving for a working visit to GA in an emotionally ragged state was not a good idea, but that's how it was for me at the end of February. We had delayed the trip already, so there wasn't much choice about timing, but my other choices may seem odd. It felt important to me to intentionally connect with a part of my history from which I was disconnected and to honor the struggle of so many of my fellow southerners in particular. The one thing that I wanted to visit on the way was the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I knew it could be an uncomfortable experience, but had no idea how moving it would be. In the car I also began to read The Secret Life of Bees which submerged me into the racially intense summer of 1964. It tells the struggles of a 14-yr old white girl who ends up living with 3 black bee-keeping sisters, becoming family with them and learning their wisdom. I guess it was a surprise to me how much it paralleled what this trip was about. I had just bought it the day before to have something to read. Seems I had heard of it at some point in Southern Living, but really didn't have a clue what I was getting into!

We spent our first night away from CO in Kansas City visiting our good friends, Matt and Trish, who used to be part of our close-knit group who vacationed together, went to church together, celebrated events together, etc., and we were so glad to be able to relax and catch up with them. After dinner they took us to the International House of Prayer (IHOP) (where their son is a musician and worship leader.) I've heard about it for years and haven't gotten to visit before. It was so refreshing to sit in that "prayer room" and experience the worship. While some young people walked around praying, others formed a line at the microphone to offer up 15-second prayers on behalf of other youth who were in town for a conference. They were passionately pleading for the hearts and minds of their generation to be touched and captured by God. A few people (men and women) danced in the back of the room. The worship team on stage played some songs people seemed to know and at other times began to sing some of the phrases, prayers, and verses spoken by the intercessors. It all worked and weaved together. I noticed all ages involved in worship around the room, but many were college aged. Some like to just come sit in the worship environment and study on their laptops. The main worship leader on keyboards had a lot of Stevie Wonder style going on. He was a big black guy with long braids and lots of energy. At times a 4-man hip-hop dance group was on stage or down in front. This was a revved up version of IHOP that some of the old-timers question. They are used to a quieter, perhaps less performance-based, more ethereal sound. For me it was pure refreshment and spiritual energy. It cut through some stuff that quieter music might not. It takes all kinds. God is big-- and worship is bigger and broader than we can imagine. I needed this little respite before the rest of my trip.

The next day was a long one.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Stopping by the Lorraine

Back from the South. Hope to soon begin posting reflections on what I saw on "my personal civil rights pilgrimage."