Memphis and the power of resistance

 

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I walk somberly with others on the 2nd floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I see the room where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed and his suitcase with a copy of Strength to Love in it. I look out the window to the balcony. A wreath marks the spot where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. There is a spirit here that transcends any history I’ve ever read out of a book.

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The motel is now a Civil Rights Museum. I see the mural, I am a Man symbolizing the 200 workers who marched during the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, protesting the pattern of abuse of black workers. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis to support those workers. In the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech he gave the night before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

 

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I continue through the museum. I watch the videos of fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham and the forces of resistance across the country through strikes, marches, sit-ins and school integration. And the adults and children who were battered and beaten. And those who were killed. “Either we go up together, or we go down together.” I mourn. I am quiet that night, reflecting on the power of resistance.

The next day, the power of music as resistance becomes clear. The Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis holds recordings of musicians who were born on plantations, musicians who came from sharecropper families, musicians who crossed racial lines to create new sounds reflecting their own times and places; who sought ways to make sense of our world through the blues.

 

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The historic Beale Street in Memphis, created in 1841 but peaking in the 1920s, was a complex and changing place. In the beginning, most of the shop owners were white, utilizing the Mississippi River for trading.  In the 1860’s, Beale Street became a gathering place for blacks across the South with many musicians playing there. But, only whites were welcome to play at the city’s Overton Park and the zoo there was open to blacks on only one day of the week.

Robert Reed Church, Sr., the freed slave of a riverboat captain understood what it was to be excluded. As a wealthy African-American businessman, he created Church’s Park and Auditorium on Beale Street in 1899 to provide a place for the black community to meet, listen to music, swim, and enjoy recreation. By the early 1900s, many more African Americans owned businesses along Beale Street. Church’s auditorium was renamed Beale Avenue Auditorium.

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The picture below is of the pool built as part of Church’s Park so black children had a place to swim.

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In 1964, a motel manager in St. Augustine, Florida, poured muriatic acid into a pool to get a group of integrated swimmers to leave. Here’s an excerpt about that time and its connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. from the webpage http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/motel-manager-pouring-acid-water-black-people-swam-pool-1964/)

On June 11, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr was arrested for trespassing at the Monson Motor Lodge after being asked to leave from its segregated restaurant. This (and other things) helped spurn on a group of protesters, black and white, to jump into the pool as a strategically planned event to end segregation at motel pools. The pool at this motel was designated “white only.” Whites who paid for motel rooms invited blacks to join them in the motel pool as their guests. This swim-in was planned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and two associates. The motel manager, Jimmy Brock, in an effort to break up the party, poured a bottle of muriatic acid into the pool, hoping the swimmers would become scared and leave.

Things do change. A few days ago, Simone Manuel became the first African-American female swimmer to ever win an individual gold medal. When Simone was eleven, she asked her mother a question many African American competitive swimmers have asked, “Why aren’t there more swimmers that look like me?”

 

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This week, Simone said she looks forward to the day when she is known simply as a champion. “I would like there to be a day when there are more of us and it’s not Simone, the black swimmer, because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records. (Quote from: For Simone Manuel, Gold Ripples Beyond the Pool.)

“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us also remember that we each have a responsibility to use the power of resistance to create the kind of change that bends the arc more quickly. Lives depend upon it.

Post by Diane

 

 

 

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