I was in the right place at the right time. The only place that would have been any better is a front row seat at the inauguration. Around 9:45am Tuesday morning, I arrived at the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis, TN. For those of you who don’t know, the National Civil Rights Museum is dedicated to the Civil Rights struggle of African Americans. It is housed in the former building for the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968.
The museum has scores of exhibits including one of the original Freedom Ride buses, replicas of the lunch counter that was used for sit-ins, and the Birmingham jail cell where MLK wrote the infamous Letter from Birmingham Jail. Upon an initial visit, the archives can be overwhelming as I have seen many people abruptly discontinue their tour and leave the museum with tear-soaked faces. The museum tour at the Lorraine Motel site culminates with replicas of Rooms 306 and 307, the former being the room where King last stayed on April 4th. A giant wreath is placed in the exact spot where King stood when James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot.
Just a few steps away from Room 306, the museum has two large viewing rooms that the staff had set up for people to view the inaugural ceremony. The museum was packed tightly with all races of people from different walks of life. From the gift shop, the lobby, the auditorium and those two rooms, the building was at capacity. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, I was in the room that was closest to the assassination site, surrounded by four of the cutest preteen girls. They had bubbly personalities and seemed to be quite intelligent and well aware of this historic event. At one point, we lost the live feed and a member of the museum staff had to fiddle around with the PC to get it back on track. During the interruption, I overheard one of the young girls tell her friend, ‘If ya’ll make me miss my President, I’m going to be very upset.’ I gave her a high five in agreeance.
With the viewing of the inaugural ceremony underway, the children were the highlight. You could hear the hope and excitement in their voices. When Bush came in to be seated at the inauguration, the children, not the adults, burst into a hardy chorus of ‘Kiss Him Goodbye’. The adults actually gave Bush a round of applause as a courtesy I suppose…or maybe that was elation because he was leaving? It didn’t matter to me; I just smirked. Perhaps as my frustration subsides in the coming years, I will grow to respect Bush…but as for right now, no dice. Once the camera fell on President Obama, I am not sure who was the loudest, the adults or the children.
So…after shedding a few tears of my own, I took note of the reactions in the room. Shouts that sounded like Sunday morning and those common hand waves of testifying to the truth punctuated the air while others cheered with fervor. While all of this was wonderful, it uncomparable to the moment I had once I left the viewing room. As I came through the door and stood there briefly to get my bearings, I looked to my right and saw Rooms 306 and 307.
Now, before I go any further, let me confess. I have been to the NCRM on several occasions and since my first time in 1991, when I could barely read the placards because of the flowing tears, I had worked up an immunity. But this immunity would break down by the time I would reach his room and stand there, looking at the salt and pepper shakers, the coffee cup, and the turned down bedsheets and cry. When looking at the wreath, it would actually make my knees buckle. In 1991, as young college students, the museum guides allowed us to stand in the exact spot, which was incredibly haunting.
On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, I stood in that same spot where I have been on plenty occassions…at Room 306. I pulled the curtain back and laid my eyes on that wreath again. No tears. No sadness. My heart pounded quickly and loudly in my chest; there was a rush of joy that swept over me. Then, a moment of clarity: Not only did I witness history, I was a partaker in the process of history. When I went to the polls during early voting in October 2008, I stood there as a beneficiary of a hard fought struggle marred by blood and pain. As I watched the election results on November 4, 2008, I saw the evidence of a vision being fulfilled. On Tuesday morning, as I watched President Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office and then to stand in the area where King roamed prior to losing his life, I felt a sense of completion; not a completion for full equality but rather, we can put a check by this item on the To Do List of full restoration for a disenfranchised, marginalized people. We needed a sign…and now we have one.
I walked away with a renewed vigor because now I know that I am a shaper of history. More than ever, I know that I really do matter, not just in the smaller universe around me but in the grand scheme of all things. Indeed, ‘greater works shall ye also do’.
Yo, so as they say around my way, ‘it gets greater later’. Stay tuned.