“Memphis froze in place when King got shot.”
The saying is common among native Memphians, and especially the ones who remember the day, the time, and where they stood when they heard the news. Some even go so far as to question whether or not they were partially to blame for the assassination, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to support sanitation workers who were picketing for better working conditions. What’s undeniable is that the city was profoundly affected that day and was, from that moment on, forever linked with the Civil Right leader’s death.
In the spring, I was invited to visit Memphis to see the unveiling of the MLK50 exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum and get a taste of how the city has shifted over the decades. Though the assassination of Dr. King is evident just about everywhere, I found that there’s much more to the southern city than that. It’s blossoming in the ways that many American cities are right now: With an emphasis on craft goods, regional foods, and diverse points of view. It’s also home to some absolutely stunning views of the Mississippi River, which is a nice perk. While other cities race to replace the old with the new, Memphis blends modernity with its roots seamlessly, feeling at once hip and modern while holding strong to its connection with history.
On top of all of this, I was struck by the way Memphis has somehow managed to stay connected to the ideals that MLK championed. It’s less that it’s frozen in time and more that they purposely preserved the legacy of the message that one of the most influential Americans in history, delivered during one of the most turbulent times in the nation. As far as city-wide identities go, that’s a damn good one.
After decades spent deciding what to do with the building after it stopped taking guests, the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s assassination, was restored to include the facade of the building from the iconic assassination photo in detail, right down to the two cars that were parked outside of the motel. It expanded in 1991, and is now functioning as the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum’s mission is to “share the culture and lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement,” and it does so through its exhibitions that examine black history from slavery until now, documentary showings, and at the Legacy Building (across the street from the motel) where visitors learn about the individuals and milestone events that shaped the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Touring the museum made me remember why I wanted to be a journalist. Many are not aware of King’s tactics to effect change, only crediting him for being an excellent speaker. King, however, was a strategist. He invited the media — journalists, like me — to see firsthand accounts of the opposition activists faced in the South. They would come out with cameras and notepads, recording the emotion and violence that people in other parts of the country were not aware of. Not only did this increase the activists’ influence across the country and give us the faces and names we think of when we hear the term, “Civil Rights,” it helped Americans and foreigners alike realize there was something inherently evil going down in America, and mobilized protesters en masse.
Watching one a video with a crowd of tourists in the museum, I heard an older white lady say, “I don’t remember any of this! How did I not know this was happening?!” At first, I thought her ludicrous, but I slowly realized not everyone owned a television or radio back then, and, if they did, much of what they saw was a very watered-down version of the struggle black Americans were enduring. The world was a much bigger place back then, and it was up to writers and photographers to spread information and help connect people to the movement.