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


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