April 4, 2018. Fifty years ago today.
Ten years ago I was in Memphis for the annual International Folk Alliance Conference. Even though we were largely sequestered in a fancy hotel and convention center, with a high rise sunset over the Mississippi River and the flat delta floodplain in Arkansas, one could quickly escape to some more "real" experiences despite the tourist trappings. BBQ ribs and the blues of course, but many of us also took the time to make a different pilgrimage as well.
The National Civil Rights Museum is in the old Lorraine Motel, frozen in time on the outside at the moment that Martin Luther King Jr. drew his last breath. Inside the museum is an incredibly powerful experience, intimately confronting the Reconstruction century's legacy of lynchings, boycotts, segregation and Jim Crow. The tour ends on the balcony where the dreamer died.
All my life I've been obsessed with what might have happened had key figures in our history not been cut down in their prime, particularly Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King. There probably aren't two more important symbols of our troubled racial history. One can't help but wonder if a Reconstruction under Lincoln's hand might have produced a more lasting racial justice than the bitter legacy of a thin-skinned and vindictive Andrew Johnson. While Lincoln and MLK lived in different times and vastly different circumstances, they are forever linked in the the scrutiny of history as well as in chiseled stone monuments on our American front lawn.
I never dreamed that I'd see an African-American president in my life. And I surely never imagined that I'd see Nazis and neo-Confederate enthusiasts marching heavily armed through an American city. And I naively believed that as time went on, the less one's appearance would matter, and the closer we'd get to those lofty ideals of a "more perfect union", "all men created equal" and "with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
The forces that would turn back the clock a few decades are alive and thriving around the world right now. To be black or brown today too often means to be in the crosshairs of hate and intolerance, to be blamed for societal ills stemming from growing frustrations - many of them quite valid.
Here at home and around much of the western world, societies are struggling with a growing segment of "left behinds" falling out of the middle class. The American facade, of each generation achieving more than their parents, has cracked and crumbled under a tsunami of globalization and technology. And our progress as a people seems at least temporarily stalled and stifled by the intensity of our polarization and distrust of any source that might challenge our foundational beliefs. Once again, like it or not, our house is bitterly and deeply divided, and we cannot even agree on the color of the sky above it.
I was too little in 1968 to be aware of the tumult of massive escalation in Vietnam, followed closely by the killings of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy all in the first five months of the year. But I'd imagine that my parents may well have felt a lot of what we feel now. Disbelief, disgust, and periods of despair, tempered by hope and determination.
So today, 50 years after the dreamer was cut down, I again choose love in the face of certain flaw and inherent imperfection. Because those elements are certainly the foundation of being human. As Dr. King stated so eloquently then, there simply is no other way to transcend hate and fear.
Because on that very same National Mall where Dr. King marched and spoke, so too hundreds of thousands of women have marched. Our children have marched. Standing up and stepping forward, daring to believe that we are better than where we are right now. That the status quo is intolerable, and going backwards is unacceptable. I too have a dream still, that someday we will make this seemingly impossible journey to malice towards none, charity towards all.
"Bridges", written by Andrew McKnight & Jon Carroll
The approach to the National Civil Rights Museum indeed feels like a portal into time travel.
The plaque outside the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis TN.