Monday, April 28, 2008

The American Civil Rights Museum: A Lesson in the Struggle Against Adversity & Surmounting Obstacles

Rain soaked my feet as the water dripped from the hem of my purple plastic raincoat. Still I stood outside. The sky looked a gloomy gray and rain fell like tears from heaven. Before the afternoon would pass, I’d shed some tears to match the rainy day.

The first sad tear mixed with the rain hitting my face when I looked up at the white carnation wreath. It hung over the balcony of what was once room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel on Street in Memphis, Tennessee. An assassin’s bullet killed the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on that hotel balcony on April 4, 1968. He was a great man but just how great I never really knew until I visited the Civil Rights Museum. The Museum occupies this former hotel and has exhibits in the boarding house across the street, the place from where James Earl Ray fired his fatal shot.

Bus loads of school children clustered by groups of matching red, purple, and green t-shirts and moved through the museum. We moved along with the kids for while, I did this longer than Ed because I wanted to see them react to the living history presented by a drama group special in the museum on this day. Harriet Tubman told of leading many to freedom through the underground railway. The students joined her in singing the woeful song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, a song that brings streams of tears to my eyes. Eleanor Roosevelt talked about the controversy she stirred in Washington by advocating for civil rights. The students walked single file through a bus where a figure of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. An actor pretended to be on the street outside the Montgomery city bus. As he told the student of this historic event, he injected his hope that no one would hurt “Dear Ms. Parks, a nice old lady” for not taking a seat in the back of the bus.

How sad that this is a part of our country’s history. How sad that white people denied black people basic rights of freedom. “How sad,” I heard Ashley say when she looked into the replica of Dr. King’s room of the Lorraine Hotel. Then, she read aloud, in the halting way kids do, Dr. King’s words…”I have been to the mountain top.” “Yes, Ashley, how sad,” I thought as a tear slipped away from me again.

Raised in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and still a kid during much of the Civil Rights Movement, I didn’t experience the social unrest so prevalent in the South. I was isolated from discrimination or segregation in my private Catholic school. I finally I did learn about the struggle for civil rights many years later during my four-year consulting assignment at Prairie View A& M University. PVAMU is a HBCU –historically black college & university – a land grant school established by the State of Texas on what had been a Texas plantation. A historian once showed me the hanging tree used for disobedient salves. A former legislator once gave a lecture including her account of how a white shoe store owner forced her to leave his store when she had come to buy her children shoes. These experiences and now my visit to the Civil Rights Museum make it all so real.

In the Museum, I saw the sign from an old Rest Room with arrows pointing left for Whites and right for Colored. I saw a white sheet fashioned into a hooded robe worn by members of the Klu Klux Klan. I saw an ad for the Lorraine Hotel on page 86 of the 1952 Travel Guide book subtitled “Vacation and Recreation without Humiliation.” I watched a video of authorities in Birmingham, Alabama use ferocious dogs and fire hydrant forced water from hoses to halt a march. I saw an FBI map showing all the burned churches in Mississippi.

I felt elation over the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Topeka School Board. I felt angry that a restaurant owner in Huntington, West Virginia on August 3, 1963 burned a cake of sulfur and turned on the heat to remove demonstrators. I felt inspired by Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I felt satisfied that our country adopted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And, I felt anger at the assassin when I peered out the window of his boarding house bathroom at the wreath hanging on the balcony where Dr. King took his last breath.

April 24, 2008

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