I’ve just returned from a weekend trip to Memphis where I did something I don’t normally do –I visited the National Civil Rights Museum. Typically, I’m not the kind of person who takes pleasure in revisiting history. It’s not that I don’t appreciate history, it’s just that reflecting on painful moments in our past makes me sad and I don’t like to deal with those emotions.
Despite my reservations, I decided to stretch beyond my comfort zone and visit the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the very place where one of the most significant people in American history spent his last hours – the Lorraine Motel.
I learned about the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated south to challenge local laws that enforced segregation. I walked through the replica of the bus that Rosa Parks took a stand –or should I say– took a seat. It was on that bus that we encountered a woman from Birmingham who was sitting there alone when she began to tell us of stories told to her by her grandmother, who endured racism as she rode the city bus. Her grandmother told her how Blacks had to enter the front of the bus to pay their fare, and afterwards exit the bus and run along the side of the bus to re-enter from the back. They couldn’t walk down the aisle of the bus, and depending on the mood of the bus driver, he would often drive off and leave them before they could re-enter.
Aside from seeing Dr. King’s motel room, the most fascinating exhibit to me was of a jail cell with an attached transcript from a phone call that took place between Dr. King and his wife Coretta when he was in jail. It reminded me that he wasn’t always this larger than life figure, he was just a regular man. At the beginning of the conversation they talked about how the call was arranged by President Kennedy, but moments later, she asked the questions of any loving wife. “Are you eating?” Did you take your vitamins?” And my favorite – “How’s your spirit holding up?” He asked her about his baby girl, Bernice and how she was doing. I think I was so moved by their exchange because despite everything going on around him, at the end of the day he was a regular guy who loved his wife and family.
My experience in Memphis taught me some lessons about why it’s important to revisit our history, and I wanted to share them with you.
Five Reasons it’s Important to Revisit History:
1. It gives perspective. As I look at what so many people did for the sake of freedom and equality it reminds me that my problems pale in comparison.
2. We realize we really can do ANYTHING. There aren’t many things harder than what civil rights activists endured. So, how dare I give up on my business dreams, or hope in my future when there are so many who risked their lives, and others who lost their lives so I’d have the opportunity to do so.
3. You’re reminded of what’s really valuable. When we don’t realize the cost that was paid for our civil rights today, we can take it for granted and easily focus on trivial and insignificant things.
4. They were just regular people who believed in something greater than themselves. From our perspective, they are our heroes and people we revere, but during that era they were just regular folk, no better or no worse than any of us today. The difference is their courage and their conviction in the fact that there was more to life, and they had the audacity to believe they deserved it.
5. It wasn’t just a “Black” thing! So often today people try to demonize an entire race for their ancestor’s role in slavery and the oppression of Blacks and other minorities during the civil rights movement, but we often forget that there were a lot of White people who also risked their lives for the sake of equality. From Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who operated an underground Railway station on the outskirts of Memphis to help escaping Africans by harboring them in his home and aiding them in their journey to freedom, to White college students who participated in sit- ins at restaurants who refused to serve Blacks. These students had food thrown at them and drinks poured on them as they sat at the counters with their Black peers.
I can honestly say I will never again view exploring our history as a time of sadness and trepidation; instead I will look forward to it and honor it for what it really is…a source of inspiration and motivation to keep pushing forward. After all, isn’t that in large part what civil rights museums and other historical institutions are all about?