Memphis, TN and the Martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr.

Our journeying today took us out of Alabama, through Mississippi to Tennessee. After a 4 hour journey we visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. While my knowledge of music is not stellar, it became quickly apparent that the soul music Stax represented in the 1950s & 60s, which was a unique blend of gospel and blues, resulted in the creation of musical partnerships that transcended existing racial divides. The museum provided a glimpse of the history of the company and its ups and downs all the way down to the present. The music store looked, to my untrained eye, very rich in its offereing…but ultimately I settled for a sticker!!

We next headed for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (TN) which was also the site for the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 4 April 1968. The museum provides a rich overload of information about various aspects of the civil rights movement through photographs, videos, audios, and artifacts. I enjoyed in particular the audio tape of the conversation between John Kennedy and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett concerning James Meredith, who had enrolled at the all-white University of Mississippi. Meredith was an army veteran who endured a lot of abuse from white opponents was able to study at the University only after federal marshals and troops were deployed to ensure safe passage for him.

While there are innumerable instances of discrimination against African Americans, consider the following:

In 1939 African-American singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) an internationally recognized singer was refused permission by the Daughters of the Revolution to perform in front of an integrated audience in Constitution Hall, in Washington DC. She was denied permission on grounds of being black. The city was a segregated city and Anderson’s treatment resulted in thousands of members of the Daughters of the Revolution, including Eleanor Roosevelt resigning from the organization.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I noted the following posters in images in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that were responses to civil rights calls for integration:

“Governor Faubius please save our Christian America”
“Save our Constitution”
“Mixing Race is Communism”
Stores that allowed integration saw protesters with placards warning white customers about “race mixing” going on in the such business establishments.

I did not know that the Armed Forces rejected blood donations from Black soldiers and when they later did, they kept them in segregated storage facilities! I also did not know that there were “reverse freedom rides” where southern white groups sent black citizens who were unemployed or in jail to Northern cities to test the seriousness of their support for the rights of African Americans!

After the Museum we drove out to meet with Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis who was one of the three Reverends at the balcony of Lorraine Motel when MLK Jr was assassinated on April 4,1968 (the other two were Martin Luther King himself, and Rev. Abernathy, both deceased). Rev Kyles shared with the group the events as they unfolded on that fateful day. His eyewitness account was touching and he his idea that he had to be there to give witness to the event. Witnessing is what completes death on the cross and he had to witness his friend’s martyrdom. Incidentally, King was on his way to Rev. Kyle’s home for dinner. He also reflected on Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech the previous day in Memphis, and how no one knew that this was going to be his last public address where King shared the news that he might not make it to the end of the civil rights movement. I was also touched by his assertion that throughout the civil rights movement he never took things personally, that is, he did not allow events to get the better of him and cause him to hate his opponents. He also shared instances of poignant reconciliation with white neighbors and even strangers in the years following integration. Probably, nearly 80 years in age, Rev. Kyle continues to work as a full time pastor at Monumental Baptist church.

We also watched three documentaries—one on the role of children in the civil rights protest marches in Birmingham called “The Children’s March.” I learned about the critical and enthusiastic role played by children and the contributions of organizers like James Bevel. The second documentary, “At the River I stand,” which was about the protests of the Memphis sanitation workers. Finally, “Respect Yourself: The STAX Records Story,” gave a wonderful account of the development of soul music tradition through STAX, a Memphis based independent music production company. I learned about the music of various artists like Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Estelle Axton, and Isaac Hayes.

Most of us are dead beat and will probably sleep almost immediately when we hit our beds. Tomorrow we leave for Little Rock, Arkansas.

The STAX Museum of American Soul Music

Balcony of Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on 4 April 1968

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