This weekend, my girlfriend and I decided to get away for a few days and took a short trip to Memphis. Ordinarily, this is not a city that ranks high on my agenda of places to visit. However, there were a couple of sites within its confines that I wanted to visit – one place that I had never been to before and another that I have been to numerous times.
We left late on Friday, which meant that we arrived in Memphis, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the nation, after nightfall. I was not comfortable with this prospect and was even less comfortable when we missed our exit. You see, the interstate system is strange in the fact that there are no signs saying “Downtown” or “Beale Street” or anything else that might be familiar. Even a GPS, which we had, leaves questions. Things got worse when we found streets blocked to allow the NBA crowd to get out-of-town. We talked to a couple of policemen who sent us on detours through neighborhoods with blown out windows and people wandering the streets. Finally, we made a turn and happened upon our hotel.
On Saturday morning, we slowly arose and visited the site that I had never been to before, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.
Normally, I am not a fan of museums (strange for a historian I suppose). To me, the places where history happened are a lot more interesting, and that is what made this a place I wanted to see. The Lorraine Motel was the location of one of the great tragedies in American history, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Most people have seen the photographs of him lying on the balcony, so I will not reproduce them here. I will say that powerful emotions emerge when you walk around the corner and see the balcony ahead.
Unfortunately, I did not get the same feelings about the museum. First, there were few authentic artifacts. The struggle of African-Americans from the beginnings of slavery to the assassination was told through photographs, audio and reproductions. I really believe that a story as important as this would be well served to have original pieces of history.
Second, I felt like a Japanese tourist at Pearl Harbor. To explain, when I was last at Pearl Harbor a lot of Japanese tourists were also there. World War II ended a long time ago, and we should be past hard feelings. But, something hit me as I watched them look around, and I thought to myself that they had no business being there. Stupid, I know. As a white person at the location of King’s assassination, I got this feeling that I had no business being there.
Third, it bothered me that the history had been gutted. The Lorraine Motel holds an important and haunting place in our history, but the facade is all that is left. I wish they could have kept more of the building intact. Granted, I have no idea of its condition when the museum was created, but I had the sickening feeling that a historic site had been demolished to build a museum. On the inside, the hotel rooms were recreated, but they were at the edge of a larger room. The sense of history had been erased. The same happened with the building that James Earl Ray fired from. A cramped, dirty boarding house was gutted and opened into a museum loft dedicated to the murder. The one part of history that was not changed and I noticed immediately was the short distance between the two. I never realized how close they were.
When the tour was finished, we had a late lunch at Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous, the most famous barbecue joint in Memphis and one of the most famous in the world. If you are in Memphis take a walk down the alley and head in. You won’t be disappointed. After that, we had drinks in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and watched the ducks march from the fountain to the elevator on their return to the roof. Don’t know the story of the Peabody ducks? It is something to behold, and the lobby becomes packed when the Duck Master appears.
On Sunday, we got up and headed to a place that I have visited countless times, Graceland.
I have written about Elvis Presley before and must say that any fan should take a trip to his house, the second most visited private home in the country. It is an homage to 70s decor and the style of a man whose tastes had few bounds. He had money and would spend it on almost anything outrageous. The Jungle Room is probably the most famous, but the TV Room is my favorite. ALERT! ALERT! TRIVIA QUESTION AHEAD! Can anyone tell me what 70s era movie is always playing in the TV Room? Hint: It’s a western.
After touring the mansion, the private planes and the other attractions at Graceland, we headed back to Nashville. We both agreed that visiting these sites was a great experience and everyone should make a point to go to each one. They play different roles in our history, but, as we know, all history is important. I have read extensively about both people and the events of their lives, but leave it to my girlfriend to ask questions that I could not answer.
1. Did Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King ever meet? After all, they were contemporaries and two of the most famous southerners in the country.
2. Was Elvis at Graceland the night of King’s assassination? If he was, then he wasn’t too far away. Knowing his fascination with police work, Elvis could very well have been following the events closely.