There is something unspeakably moving about visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, especially if you do it, as I did, completely by accident on the anniversary of the day Dr. Martin Luther King was shot, on April 4, 1968. I was in Memphis recently, teaching two Wake Up to Your Weight Loss workshops at Better Bodies Yoga (which everyone should run out and go to, so wonderful were the staff and offerings there), and wanted to visit the site. But I have to admit I wasn't completely prepared for the experience.
The photographs are famous. Dr. King lying in a pool of blood on a motel balcony, a group of men, all pointing in the same direction, from which the bullet came. Since that time, a group of people saved the motel from foreclosure so a National Civil Rights Museum could be erected there, to commemorate the work of Dr. King and the others who struggled so bravely during that time.
When you drive up and park, there is a standard brick museum-y edifice there. Nothing much to talk about. But when you round the corner from the parking lot, there is the old neon sign for the Lorraine Motel, with a quote from Dr. King on it. Then, as we walked closer to the hotel, it's like a sudden shock of cold wind. There is the balcony, the last place he stood, with a white wreath to commemorate the spot. There is the new banner that someone has brought for the anniversary. And there, across the street, is the spot someone stood patiently, waiting to silence King's voice. Today there are people milling around, taking pictures in front of the gate with words from King's last speech inscribed on it. Everyone is quiet, a few Obama t-shirts sprinkled in among them. They are proud to be here.
And all I could think was ... how small it all looked. The event had been so huge in my mind, so evil and tinged with conspiracy, that to see it brought to earth -- how simple the room was, with its modest art and ashtrays, how scant the distance was between the rooming house across the street and that fateful balcony. How is it possible that one of the most important minds of our time was snuffed out in this tiny place, over this tiny distance, in such a simple manner? One bullet. That's all it took.
The museum itself is filled with excellent exhibits detailing all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, from the marches in Selma to the fire hoses and the lunch counters. You can also go across the street, through that iron gate with prescient words inscribed, and see parts of the room James Earl Ray stayed in and shot Dr. King from -- it's absolutely chilling. I wanted to leave there right away, and get back to the people outside, standing together, quietly looking up at that balcony. Trying to derive hope from the sadness of his death, and the knowledge that something has indeed changed, with Obama in the White House. My heart filled up with emotion and I cried there, believing I was almost ready to be proud again.