Some things you never forget. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, it could be 30 years later, and the memory is as fresh as yesterday. So it is with my visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Years later, and I can recall the emotions I felt that day: pride, anger, sadness, yet somehow hopeful.
Back then, I was not nearly the museum maven that I am today. Most of my museum visits had been more focused on art, not history. I dare say the National Civil Rights Museum was probably the first museum devoted to Black history that I experienced. It was quite an introduction; I was blown away.
It’s one thing to read about history in a book, another to watch a documentary or film, and to be up close and personal is a whole other thing altogether. Powerful. I remember walking slowly, almost reverently to look at Room 306. It was the room the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed in the night before his assassination on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
It was surreal in its preservation. The room is as it was, with a rotary telephone, ’50s-style lamps, small television with antenna, old-fashioned salt and pepper shakers, and what looks like those old-school big local telephone directories. There is a food tray on a table. I don’t know how long I stood there, but I was in no rush. I just kept thinking, This is where he was. This is where he spent his last days. I could feel his spirit; I’m that kind of girl. I remember my heart filling up. I didn’t cry, but I wanted to. After all, growing up as a kid in the ’60s, Martin Luther King was revered. He wasn’t too far behind Jesus. In our household, I remember we had small bronze busts of Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy that sat proudly on the fireplace mantel in the living room alongside family photos. So standing there, I felt loss. The enormity of who he was, what he did, seemed more real that day.
Reflections On Rosa Parks
I knew the story of Rosa Parks well. It’s one of the handful of stories teachers include in the curriculum come Black History Month. But stepping onto the bus in the exhibit and seeing her sitting close to the front instead of the back where she was supposed to be given segregation and listening to the narration? That was inspiring. Although the story goes that Parks knew that the NAACP was looking for a lead plaintiff in a case to test the constitutionality of the Jim Crow law, she did not set out to be arrested that day. It just happened. She said enough was enough and didn’t care about the consequences. That’s courage. That’s selflessness. In moments like this, you realize how you fall short. You talk the talk but don’t walk it. Conviction is good for the soul. So yes, I was feeling all sorts of ways on this day.
The Savagery Of Slavery
For sure anger rose up. The slavery exhibit got me going. It’s not like I hadn’t seen movies about slavery, but life-size figures, with pained faces, in chains, sitting inches from each other for a long, long journey felt eerily real. Heavy sigh. Then there were the depictions of violence in photos, oral histories, and panels of text. Reading them breaks your heart. It was tough to sort out my emotions, to squash that discomfort that comes when you get mad and you can’t do much about it. You know you can’t hate today for past sins committed by folks no longer walking the earth. So you suck it up, stuff it down, and keep moving. You go over to Beale Street and get some great barbecue to put a smile back on your face.
What About My History?
What I remember too is thinking, Dag, I didn’t begin to know my history. I was getting schooled big time. That kind of ticked me off, too. I got a ton of American history growing up, but what about more of my story? It just reinforced that as a parent it was on me to do a better job of educating my child and for me to continue to educate myself. That’s perhaps why as I began to travel the world years later, I made it a point everywhere I went to put on my itinerary a visit to cultural institutions. No Black history museum is too small for me to visit. This is a practice I will continue forever. I’ll do so even though stepping into them often sears my soul.
Over the years there have been life-changing moments. When my eyes fell on the Slave Pen at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, I nearly stopped breathing. It was creepy, big, dark, depressing. I imagined what could have gone on within those walls. The well of emotion made me nauseated. I walked away from the exhibit to pull myself together. The Slave Pen from the 1800s came from a farm in Mason County, Kentucky, about an hour away from where the museum is today. But it was at the largest museum on the planet dedicated to the history of the slave trade and slavery from the early 17th century to the present, the Memorial ACTe Slavery Museum in Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe that tears flowed. When I saw the replica of a slave ship stuffed with hundreds of people side by side with barely room to move, and then lifted a chain that once was on someone’s neck that was so heavy that it pulled my hand downward, my heart sank, tears came. Humans could be monsters. I keep going to these museums; the rumble of emotions is cleansing. When truth is acknowledged, there is peace.
My time at the National Civil Rights Museum was pivotal. It sparked a new thirst to know more, to not be content with what little I knew, and to question what I did know. That day I spent at the museum was a mix of emotion — more melancholic than I would have ever expected, but at the same time empowering. You look at 400 years, the unspeakable horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and one injustice after the other, and yet despite it all, what I chose to focus on when I walked away that day was our indomitable spirit. Somehow, we kept moving forward. I had a deeper sense of pride.
Editor’s Note: See Sheryl’s picks for 6 Experiences Not To Miss During A Visit To The National Civil Rights Museum here.