I had the opportunity, for the first time, to visit Memphis, TN last year. One of the places I knew I had to visit was the Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as importantly, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.
To say that standing in the parking lot, below the balcony in front of room 306, was poignant would be ridiculously understated. There probably aren’t enough words to describe exactly what it was, emotionally, to be there. Suffice it to say, that it was smaller than I imagined, and still echoing the cries of millions.
The thing is, at a spot where we experienced one of the darkest moments in our history here in the United States, there was light everywhere. The employees, the volunteers, the visionaries who created and run the NCRM have wrestled away the darkness from this place, and shone a light of hope and equality and freedom for everyone.
I took my time on my trip through the museum. I went alone, which somehow seemed right for this first time visit. I made my way through the exhibits. I stared for a long time in to the window of the preserved room where Dr. King spent his last hours on Earth (he liked coffee as much as I do, it appears). I learned. I felt guilty. I felt proud.
At the end of my self-guided tour, on the advice of a helpful and friendly volunteer there, I went in to the little theater and watched a short documentary film. As the lights came up at the end, I had to compose myself for a few moments before I could go back out in to the world.
Directed by Adam Pertofsky and nominated for an Academy Award a couple of years ago,The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 is a riveting account of Dr. King’s trip to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers, and in particular the man who was the only one on the balcony with him when he was shot, Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. Dr. Kyles is as inspirational to me in this film as is Dr. King. He has carried forth these four decades a heavy burden, to bear witness, and he has done it well. I hope one day I have the chance to meet him and to thank him for the way he has lived his life.
On my way out the door I thanked the volunteer who had recommended I see the film and told him I was bringing a copy home so my kids could see it, too.
Those of us who have it better than those who came before us, have an obligation to pass along a world that is better than we found it. We’re 40+ years on now, and plenty of us are still not “judged by the content of our character.” To say that we have not come a long way would be wrong, but to pretend we don’t still have a long way to go would be just as wrong.
We need to actively keep the dream alive. We need to keep The National Civil Rights Museum a tangible touchstone for us, and our kids, and their kids, and theirs.
In the months leading up to my Memphis trip last year I had become aware of and joined www.crowdrise.com. Co-founded by actor Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club), Crowdrise is essentially a social networking site for the greater good.
Upon discovering it, I immediately began to realize that Crowdrise is a great tool to bring critical mass to critical issues. Still, for my first attempt at participation there via my own “project,” I wanted to ensure I did something that would first and foremost resonate strongly with me.
After visiting the NCRM, it was clear what my first project would be.
They say you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Nowhere is that more true than in Memphis, TN at the National Civil Rights Museum, where “they will never, ever kill the dream.”
“Martin Luther King didn’t die in some foolish way. He didn’t overdose. He wasn’t shot by a jealous lover. He wasn’t shot leaving the scene of a crime. He was a man with an earned PhD degree at 28, a Nobel Peace Prize . . . Oratorical skills off the charts. All the things he could have been, U.N. ambassador, big churches all over America. He could have been a university president. All the things he could have been, and here he is with all these skills, dying on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, helping garbage workers.” ~Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles