Tour Memphis to recall the revolutionary era of the civil rights movement.
The voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still is heard in Memphis. It rings strong and proud in a video presentation of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in August 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Today, 40 years after King’s assassination, the story of the civil rights movement and the gains it brought to millions can be seen in several sites clustered around downtown Memphis, most notably at the National Civil Rights Museum at 450 Mulberry St.
Along with the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala., and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the museum pays tribute to the revolutionary years in the 1950s and ’60s that saw blacks achieve greater rights, as well as the lasting effects of the civil rights movement on art, music and other aspects of American culture.
A place where history comes alive
The National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the former Lorraine Motel, the site where King was shot on April 4, 1968. King’s room has been made to look as it did when he stayed at the motel in the days leading up to his assassination. A nearby display chronicles King’s final days, including his work with striking sanitation workers. Photos show them marching and wearing signs that simply read, “I am a man.”
Also included are other key moments in the struggle for equality, including the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court Decision in 1954, the struggle of James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. More displays explain accomplishments by blacks in American history, including black units that fought in World War II.
An adjacent part of the museum across the street from the motel investigates King’s assassination in detail.
In King’s footsteps
King’s work with striking sanitation workers took him to many sites around downtown Memphis. Heritage Tours, Inc. can arrange walking and bus tours to take in these sites.
“I can put a lot into the Civil Rights tour because I lived much of it,” said Heritage Tours co-founder Elaine Lee Turner, who participated in sit-ins and other civil rights activities in Memphis in the 1960s. She and her sister, Joan Lee Nelson, started the company in 1983.
Tours often begin with the singing of “freedom songs” at Clayborn Temple, formerly Second Presbyterian Church. “People have to get into it,” said Turner. The church served as the headquarters and starting point for many marches, and Turner remembers police in riot gear during King’s final marches in Memphis.
At the Mason Temple, another tour stop, King gave his “I Have Seen the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968.
“That was the last speech he ever gave,” Turner said.
Tours may also include Slavehaven, a restored home north of downtown that gives visitors a look at the underground railroad, which brought many slaves to freedom before the Civil War, and the W.C. Handy House & Museum on Beale Street, dedicated to “The Father of the Blues.” Handy was a key figure in the evolution of Beale Street as the black musical and cultural center of Memphis and the mid-South.
The music and the message
Handy laid the groundwork for the impact that music would have on the civil rights movement. Music provided the soundtrack to a tumultuous time in America, yet also brought together many blacks and whites who found common ground through their love of the same songs.
A perfect example of this coming together can be found by visiting Soulsville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music, at 926 E. McLemore Ave., just a short distance from the National Civil Rights Museum.
Founded by white businessman Jim Stewart in 1957, Stax became the epicenter for soul music, an American art form that fused the blues with a more urban melody and style. The musical home of legends such as Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes, Stax was integrated long before the civil rights movement burst into the forefront of America’s conscience. Stewart saw Stax as a completely integrated company, hiring black as well as white technical personnel and management.
“All the musicians, black and white, got together, and it turned into a melting pot,” said Tim Sampson, communications manager at Soulsville.
The Mar-Keys, an integrated local group of musicians, saw their songs played on radio stations designed for both blacks and whites. The group eventually spawned Booker T. and the MGs, which became Stax’ House Band and recorded the iconic instrumental “Green Onions.”
The collaboration between the races extended beyond the recording studio as many Stax musicians worked on music at the Lorraine Motel, one of the few integrated businesses in Memphis at the time. Because Stax had no air conditioning, the motel also gave musicians a more comfortable place in which to work.
Soul great Wilson Pickett wrote the classic “In the Midnight Hour” in a room at the Lorraine with Steve Cropper, the white guitarist for Booker T. and the MGs.
“They were living the civil rights movement without knowing it,” Sampson said.
Additional artifacts detailing the impact of music on Memphis and the civil rights movement can be seen at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, 191 Beale St. next to the FedEx Forum. A display on civil rights and soul culture features a saxophone belonging to Memphis musician Ben Branch, who at Dr. King’s request played the hymn “Precious Lord” outside the Lorraine Motel just moments before King was assassinated.
The museum also traces the history of Memphis as a musical mecca, showing how black and white musical styles migrated into Memphis where they cross-pollinated and created some of the greatest American music, including rock.
As part of a trip to Memphis, fit in a stop at the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant, between Stax and the National Civil Rights Museum at 998 Mississippi Blvd. The Four Way counted King as a customer. Try the delicious fried chicken, meat loaf or pork chops. There’s also an assortment of cakes and pies for dessert.
These Memphis attractions symbolize many of the accomplishments made by the civil rights movement, and remind us of the challenges that still lay ahead.
Michael Ream is a contributor from Clarksville, Ark.
|Jan/Feb 2008 Issue
Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a city rich in history, will host a variety of special events throughout 2008 to commemorate the civil rights leader.
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