MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Where do we go from here?
I was transported, from the moment the Lorraine Motel marquee came into view, heralding the National Civil Rights Museum.
Parking in front of Central BBQ, I stood on the curb across the street a moment, an inexplicable wave of distress rising. Those feelings were palpable among the flow of visitors into the complex.
All slowly approached the museum entrance, heads craned the length of it to the second floor, until there it was.
A wreath hanging from the balcony outside Room 306 bore witness to where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on April 4, 1968, when the man of peace and revered civil rights leader was felled by a single shot, struck in the face and neck.
The bullet, said to be fired from the window of a bathroom in the Main Street Rooming House — now part of the museum campus — by felon James Earl Ray, a deeply racist supporter of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s presidential campaign and segregationist platform.
Conspiracy theories aside, King was killed here at age 39, flanked on this balcony by close companions in the Civil Rights Movement, the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams.
Marking Memphis, moving forward
Where do we go from here?
I recently took a mind-clearing, solo road trip Down South, and with the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination months away, I knew I had to visit this museum established in 1991 by activists who bought it out of foreclosure, recognizing its sorrowful yet haloed status.
On Wednesday, Maureen “Moe” Forte, 67, of East Hazel Crest, will be among the thousands expected to converge here for “#MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here?” commemoration activities.
The first African-American elected in the south suburb, Forte is an East Hazel Crest alderman and president of its library district. Like many from Chicago, she and a friend, Gerri Taylor, are leading a delegation by bus to the commemoration. Their 53 folks leave at 6:25 a.m. Tuesday.
“I’m going to try to hold it together at the museum ceremonies, but I’m already so emotional. As I watch everything on TV, all I can do is cry,” said Forte, niece of the late civil rights icon the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who convinced King to make Birmingham, Alabama, a focal point of the movement, and whose headquarters was bombed three times.
Daylong tributes at the museum will begin at 10 a.m. in the courtyard, with music, dance and spoken word performances. A new wreath will be hung during a 3:30 p.m. ceremony that includes an ecumenical liturgy and remarks from national figures and icons of the 1950s-60s movement.
At 6:01 p.m. — the approximate moment at which the bullet from the high-powered rifle pierced the head of the Baptist minister who had come to lead a peaceful march in support of workers in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike — bells will toll, here in the courtyard and nationwide.
Where do we go from here?
“The struggle continues. We still have a lot of injustice — 50 years later, we’re still fighting racism, still fighting to maintain and exercise our vote,” said Forte, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher. “It’s up to the older generation to keep the history alive. Black history is not being taught in the schools — at least not in Chicago Public Schools, although it is state law.”
If you are interested in this story, you’ll want to watch Sun-Times columnists Mary Mitchell (left) and Maudlyne Ihejirika talk about their jobs as reporters approaching the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. This is part of an ongoing video series we call “Working the Story.”
Forte believes we must remember in order not to go backward, and thus has taken a delegation to Selma to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for 18 years now.
I visited the museum on a Monday, when it was just me and other midday, weekday stragglers, stopped in front of the Dodge and Cadillac period automobiles under Room 306, in front of the plaque with the quote from Genesis 37:19-20: “They said one to another, behold, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him. We shall see what will become of his dream.”
Inside the museum, which got a $27.5 million facelift in 2014, visitors are immersed in a multimedia experience. It starts with America’s sin of slavery and ends in two well-preserved rooms where King — leader of a historic quest for equal rights that birthed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968 — spent his final hours.
In between those exhibits is a journey through five centuries of tyranny, traversing the Jim Crow era; the bus where Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott; lunch counters of the ’60s sit-ins; 1963 March on Washington; Selma’s Bloody Sunday; the ’70s rise of Black Power, and finally, hard-won black achievement in wide-ranging sectors of society.
Where do we go from here?
“Here’s the question I ask people, particularly our youth, all the time: ‘Fifty years after Dr. King’s assassination, has anything changed?’ Many things have, yes. But many things haven’t,” Forte said. “We’re still fighting for what King sought: unification of our human race, regardless of race.”