Stories from the Road: Race and History in Memphis, TN (February 25, 2017)
The National Civil Rights Museum is tucked away in a neighborhood just off of downtown Memphis. Maybe it was because we approached the building from the back, but I didn’t realize where we were until I saw the huge pastel sign in front of me.
The outside of the museum is oriented around the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Seeing it before entering the museum serves as a solemn reminder that you are about to enter sacred ground. A place to remember Dr. King and his legacy, filtered through the larger African-American civil rights story. But, the constant protestors across the street tell another story. The story of a town struggling with crime who believe that the million dollar museum is a more a memorial to assassin James Earl Ray. A town where African-Americans make up a majority of the population, but also suffer much higher rates of poverty than their white neighbors. The balcony is a reminder that as lauded as Dr. King is every January, and rightly so, his legacy and his dream are far from realized.
As a white person, I was a minority in the museum. Memphis is a minority majority city, so this isn’t surprising nor did it matter. Until I walked into the first exhibit room. Slavery. A bronze casting of slaves shackled on a slave ship was immediately to my right. Standing next to other patrons, I didn’t know how to act and suddenly felt very self-conscious. Reading too thoroughly might make me look callous. But reading too quickly might make me look dismissive. The man next to me stepped forward to take a photo. I knew that I would feel even more self-conscious. Would that make me seem morbidly curious? Or like some sort of voyeur? Throughout the museum, I kept my photo ops to a minimum. Looking back through the photos, they are only of triumphant moments. The only exception is the full scale model of the Pettus bridge. While not a triumphant moment, John Lewis’ memoir (which I highly recommend) gave me a connection, or at least a context, for that room.
It is no secret that white people are not the heroes of this story. There were a few scattered brave ones featured throughout the exhibit, but most times a photograph of someone who looked like me meant another reason for shame. I can’t help but wonder if this accounts for some of the racial disparity in visitors. Do white people not want to face our past actions? Even as our societal atmosphere forces people of color to face the past actions of whites. Do white people not think that the story of civil rights involves them?
Watching African-American families fill the exhibit rooms was simultaneously inspiring and shameful. Watching young African-American children listen to the story of Brown v. Board and sit at a model of the lunch counter protests was a reminder of how far our society has come. Yet seeing them stand in front of a photo of Klansmen in robes made me want to reach out. To try to explain to them how people like me did that to people like them. But I couldn’t explain it anymore than I could explain the current Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter debate. Imagining myself trying to explain racism to a child, especially a child of color, reminds me what a pathetic excuse for inaction it has become for white people.
However, if you are looking for a place in Memphis that exalts white people, look no further than Graceland, where a white man (Elvis) is essentially credited with the invention of Rock and Roll. There was no mention of the Prisonaires or Big Mama Thorton or the others were integral to his success. Graceland is notably silent. This a man who built his career and fortune (and ostentatious home) on a style of music that was influenced and shaped by people of color.
Graceland, while seemingly a Memphis must-do, attracts a more white people than the total that seem to currently live in the city. I don’t recall seeing one non-white visitor. This is made more uncomfortable by the overpriced ticket experience that is managed by employees who are mainly people of color. A stark contrast from the National Civil Rights Museum, where people of color both created the history and are the majority of the visitors. At Graceland the history was created by a white man on the backs of people of color who are the keepers of it, but not the consumers.
I wasn’t sure how to understand my place at Graceland. I like historical homes and have the resources to pay for the occasional splurge (especially when I was already on vacation). But what sort of message does that send? At the National Civil Rights Museum, I had to stop myself from falling into the position of the self-righteous white person. I am not a martyr for going to a museum where my people are at fault. I am not special. White people, arguably, have more of a reason to go to the National Civil Rights Museum, if only to stop the post-racial society nonsense. But it doesn’t work the opposite at Graceland. People of color do not need to go to Graceland. Nobody really ‘needs’ to go to Graceland. If you google “Elvis racism”, you’ll find a trove of articles arguing about whether or not Elvis was a racist. While I am certainly not an Elvis scholar, the mere existence of the argument seems to suggest that Graceland does not tell the whole story about Elvis, race and rock n’ roll.