Our next stop on the BRO southern states tour is the Mississippi River city of Memphis Tennessee. I set out to write just one post about my trip to Memphis, but it turns out there was just too much to talk about. The story was getting too long so, I’ve broken it into two parts for your reading pleasure. This first installment is just a tourist’s account of two very different but iconic American historic sites. LAter I will talk about my impressions of the city itself.
As I noted in the first installation of this multipart travelogue, our destination was Savannah Georgia. Memphis was not on the shortest route to Savannah but was not so far off course that it did not warrant a slight detour for two major must see places. Those places would be, Graceland, the home of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley and the National Civil Rights Museum, site of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. After having visited some of the Lincoln Sites in Springfield the Civil Rights Museum had extra meaning for us.
My wife is a big Elvis fan, so seeing the Elvis house was a big deal. I wanted to see it for the kitsch and pop culture value but, probably more so because I knew it would be a walk through a place frozen in time. Time travel is always an interesting experience. The Elvis house museum gave surprisingly free access to much of the estate including the house, grounds, out buildings, cars, and two airplanes. It is a fascinating tour. The house is modest by today’s standards and not as garish as portrayed in pictures. The exterior is true to the original 1920’s design, elegant but not showy. Surprisingly, the house and pool area are fully visible from the street and from the very nearby backyards of neighbors. Imagine, watering your garden and there is Elvis in his trunks, sunning himself. The interior is packed with collections of furniture and object’s that are oddly tasteful in a kitschy way. As a Collector, Elvis was not buying high brow art but he did have an eye for design and much of what fills the house is quite interesting. There are several modestly sized rooms decorated with various themes including a mod yellow bar in the basement and a large tiki room in the back. It would all have been considered quite edgy and extravagant back in the day, but seems charmingly innocent today.
Graffiti dedicated to Elvis covers the street side wall for the entire length.
Basement rec-room with 3 TVs! Built in! With built in Stereo!
The living room.
From Graceland, we crossed the city to a very different place, also frozen in time, the Lorraine Motel, a place where we lost a bit of our national innocence.
Dr. King laying dead, his associates pointing in the direction of the shots.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death as he stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine. The motel was a modern addition to the original 1920s hotel building. It catered to a black clientele during the segregation period. Its guests commonly included prominent African-American musicians, such as Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, and Ray Charles when they were in town performing or recording at the famous Stax Records. King and his entourage were in Memphis and staying at the hotel in support of the city sanitation workers strike. The murder shocked the nation and likely set us on a starkly different course as a country.
A re-creation of the room from which it is believed James Earl Ray took the fatal shots
The balcony and the shooter’s window
After the assassination, the hotel continued operations in various forms for a couple of decades. In 1998 it was converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. Wikipedia has a thorough history of the mid-century modernist motor hotel style building here. The museum was built behind the original facade of the motel, preserving it and the shooter’s building across the street as they were the day of the shooting. A white wreath on the balcony of the motel marks the spot King stood when he was shot. Two vintage white cars are parked in front of the motel just as they were that horrible day. The scene is deeply moving, especially as you see images of the shooting matching exactly what you are seeing in front of you. The museum itself is filled with powerful historical imagery and materials. As you walk through the museum, the fight for civil rights is presented in chronological order, rising in elevation as you go. Eventually the tour brings you to inside the hotel window on the second floor, directly behind the spot at which king was shot. You can look across the street to the shooter’s window. The scene is undescribably powerful. King was just one of millions of people who struggled to gain the rights that they were supposed to have. The museum is inspired by king but is as much or more about these others and their struggles for freedom in our country. The museum makes this clear. The museum experience also makes it clear that King was one of the most important leaders in the history of our nation. He is as much responsible for the freedoms we ALL share as any of the founding fathers. This place is well worth the trip. It is a very important place in America.