I’m in Memphis, Tennessee, birthplace of the Blues. Historic Beale Street is pretty quiet during the day, but transforms into a busy, loud, festival of music and food as the sun sets.
This morning I ventured over to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed primarily in the refurbished Lorraine Hotel–the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.
Calling this museum “important” or “well-presented” is inadequate at best. It most certainly is that, but more, it is living history, told through voices that aren’t usually included in school textbooks or in the chambers of power. Enduring centuries of forced migration, African Americans continue to struggle for equality in their own country.
What resonates with me are the tones of fear that have always been associated with whites “losing ground” to any group of “others.” This is invariably followed up with statements to deny or even justify that fear, e.g., “Slavery is a time-honored American tradition,” It’s for their own good,” “We gave them citizenship and the vote (the 14th and 15th Amendments passed after the Civil War), yet it’s still not enough,” “the Supreme Court supported ‘Jim Crow’ laws, they are, therefore, the laws of the land,” “Separate but equal is the best policy,” “They won’t take over our schools,” “Race riots (in the 1960s) wouldn’t happen if those people would just settle down,” and even including the recent “All Lives Matter.”
These are the voices of fear and are still recognizable in our current conversations about immigration, Islam, the flag, and nationalism. I know, because at various times and in various ways, this has been my voice too. Usually not an active voice, but definitely a complicit one.
It took me several hours to go through the whole museum. The opening exhibit focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. while the rest is organized historically. As I moved through exhibit after exhibit, I was led through American history from the perspective of people whose voices I’ve not always listened to well enough. I heard voices of people captured and enslaved as early as 1619. I heard the cries of slaves over a period of 300 years in the United States. I heard the early recognition that the revered phrase,”all men are created equal” did not include “all men [sic]”. I heard voices of persistence and courage in dealing with chronic, culturally-embedded injustices. I heard creative attempts at calling for freedom, rights, and decency for all people. I heard cries for education, for housing, and for employment, the historic denial of which was somehow justified. I heard heroic voices demanding change and frightened voices clinging to the status quo. I heard voices on strike, voices being beaten, voices lynched, voices favoring violence, voices bent on vengeance, voices denied, voices ignored, voices suppressed. But the voices continued. And still continue. And they are, as yet, not always heard.
This is because the response to these unheard and uncomfortable voices–not only in history, but even today–are voices that come from fear, denial, and self-justification. Longing to maintain power, those behind these voices deny the legitimacy of stories that reveal the continued and systemic abuse of that power. Maybe someday we’ll stop our frightened shouting and be quiet long enough to listen. Then, maybe the voices largely suppressed for centuries will be heard as valid and authentic. Our history is still being told. Some of it can include new voices and stories finally being heard. If we are to move forward, our history needs to include all voices, not just those with which we are familiar or comfortable. I plan to listen. And I plan to speak.