Today we visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the location where Dr. King was shot. The hotel has been turned into the national Civil Rights Museum. This was an amazing experience; however, as one of my fellow pilgrims pointed out, the title is wrong. The museum limits its history to only Black Americans, beginning in 1619, with the first shipment of slaves into America, and focuses primarily on the Southern involvement.
By some stroke of divine blessing, Ray Jordan found a man in the museum who was one of the founding members of SNCC. His name was Aaron Johnson. He took the time and spoke to us. He said that the Civil Rights movement was not just a movement for Black people. He said that it was so an integrated group like ours could go on a trip like this. He told us to remember how fragile justice and equality are, and as hard as his generation fought to earn it, we had to fight just as hard to keep it.
He had just published a book and stayed behind to sign them. I told him I was a dance major and he wrote in mine, “As a young student, you are majoring in dance. Dancing speaks movement and joy. I pray that you will move the world forward. It is in you.” I felt completely validated as a dancer and a person when I read that. He was such a lovely man.
I walked through the museum, and I was surprised and happy at how many of the names I knew, many of them only because of this class and this trip. I followed the path to the room where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying his last night alive. I walked slowly, mentally asking so many questions. What would have happened if Martin had exercised his legal right to stay in the hotel across town in the white neighborhood? He had earned it. Why didn’t he fight it when they told him to leave? Why didn’t he get a different room at the Lorraine? Why did he take the time to drink a cup of coffee, and could he have escaped death if he would have taken his coffee black instead of polluting it with cream and sugar? What would have happened if they had told Mahalia Jackson to sing “Precious Lord” the night before?
I created a scenario in which he went inside to get a jacket, spilled coffee on his shirt and had to change, by the time he was ready to re-emerge, the assassin had gotten bored and lazy and walked out on his opportunity. There was something inside of me that tried desperately to find a way to prevent his death. But in the end it was only wishful thinking about a past that could not be changed. Hate ruins lives.
If I’ve learned nothing else from this trip I walk away with that. I looked out of the window to the spot on the balcony where he fell. There’s a stain on the ground. I don’t know if it was blood, rust, debris from construction, or maybe an image that my mind created, but that was it for me. It had started to rain. I put my fingertips on the window, and God and I cried together.