April 30, 2014 —
They’ve kept the outside of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in basically the same condition as it was the night Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on April 4, 1968. The same dingy neon sign still hangs (though I’m certain it’s been redone), and the old motel facade stretches down the length of the street. There are even a few period cars parked perfectly, which definitely help sell the time travel vibe.
It’s kind of a strange idea for a Civil Rights Museum, but the effect is absolutely stunning. You feel it. History happened here.
Inside it feels like any modern museum; with a cool mix of multimedia projection and large prop exhibits (a Montgomery bus, a “whites only” diner). It’s very thoughtfully done and tells an incredible story beginning with slave ships and ending with marching to the hotel room where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. At times it is equally upsetting, touching and insightful.
I felt completely out of place next to the young black families who were moving through the museum at a similar pace. I wondered what it must be like for them.
I’m in Memphis with Emily doing some sightseeing and meeting her godparents, Charlie and Heather and the rest of the Kenny family. Charlie and Emily’s father Carl were close friends, and she spent summers here when she was a kid. She hasn’t seen many of them since her father’s funeral, and most of them I haven’t ever met. They welcome me with open arms, and that first night we eat barbeque at their house and they catch up. I hear old stories about Carl.
Charlie’s face lights up when he speaks about him—their escapades, how smart he was, about playing golf and the family brewery. They all laugh about how he often carried around a large heavy bag.
“This is before a man-purse was acceptable. He would have everything in there, food for the kids, tennis rackets!”
“Cheese at the opera!” their daughter Erin adds. They all laugh and smile, I can tell that they are really picturing it.
The next day Emily and I go to Graceland and visit Elvis’s house. I’ve never been a huge Elvis fan (though I am certainly more so after the visit), but the tour is a fascinating audio and visual time machine. Much of his house is what you would expect, extravagantly decorated rooms straight out of the late ‘70s; the jungle room, the TV room. There’s his airplane with the gold-plated seat buckles and the costumes from Vegas and the hall of gold records.
It all paints a picture of a larger-than-life superstar who loved the city of Memphis. But, out of all the craziness, what I found most memorable was the staircase. Elvis didn’t let visitors into his bedroom and so the upstairs of the mansion is off limits. But while standing downstairs looking up, the audio tour in your ear plays a sound clip of Lisa Marie, Elvis’s daughter, describing him taking forever to get ready to receive guests.
Looking up I could feel what people must have felt waiting for him to walk in. The anticipation, the excitement, when is he coming down? Then suddenly there he would be… but of course he wasn’t.
“Maybe he’s still up there,” I heard someone say. A tour guide smiled with a glint in his eye.
Riding away, I considered the power of history, of place, and about how much I had enjoyed getting to know a little bit about three incredible men I’d known very little of before, and whom I’d unfortunately never get to meet.