Memphis

A Memphis Lesson

Tom Anderson is an author and travel writer from Porthcawl, South Wales. He has travelled the world, surfboard in hand, recording his adventures thus far in the travelogues Riding the Magic Carpet, Chasing Dean, and Grey Skies, Green Waves. His 2009 book Chasing Dean took him to America on a quest to surf its hurricane states. Anderson has road-tripped his way across the US of A, travelling extensively throughout the Deep South.

 

What happened next, I give you my solemn word, is completely true. Never in my lifetime have I been more humbled, and therefore I have a duty to make it clear that this is exactly how it happened.

So Marc had decided – as someone has to on a long road trip – that our choking and spluttering, air-con-free Escort, not so long ago nicknamed the ‘Betty Ford’, would bear north into the state of Tennessee next.

His logic was pretty sound: ‘We’re done in Mississippi. Plus you’ve got to get the car back to where?’

‘Uh, Ontario.’

‘Isn’t that in, like, Canada? Better get shifting.’

And so we did.

A little rain squall turned the Natchez Chase Parkway into our warm-up for surreal experiences – dreamlike, even – and we soon felt strangely, almost comfortingly, lost. The sun broke back through immediately and mist began rising off the road, pouring out of the forests around us like dry ice. Deer roamed at several corners, reducing the car to a mere crawl for fear of hitting one – but we didn’t mind. It repaired our souls to be surrounded by natural scenery, with no 4x4s, gas-stations, freeway signage or buildings to blight things. Once Americans decide to preserve nature, it’s done in style.

‘I’d take this road all the way if I could,’ I told Marc, who was drifting in and out of sleep, his forehead against the door.

We popped out onto Interstate 55 and began heading north. Marc’s call was that we should get up towards the Missouri state line before stopping for the night – which would be about a hundred miles or so beyond Memphis. However, as Tennessee’s biggest city drew near, we were distracted from the plan. We had no choice. What happened next was the freakiest thing ever. Here’s how it came about:

Marc had in his third computer bag (yes, I did say third) a copy of The Guardian he’d picked up in Gatwick Airport, before embarking on the flight to Miami that had got him to the South, to me and into the Betty Ford. He’d held onto the paper, as he thought (oddly for him) that I might want to have a read of it once we met up.

‘Yank newspapers’ll do your head in, see, son. Thought you’d be glad of a good honest British take on world events.’

Probably not, I wanted to moan, but didn’t.

Anyway, the newspaper had with it a free CD, titled Greatest Speeches of the 21st Century. Again, odd for Marc, he hung on to the thing – selflessly thinking at some point I might like to listen to it as we drove.

The reason for this CD getting played this day rather than any other is that it had got stored in with Marc’s third, and most precious, laptop. This was the one he kept ongoing and as-yet-unpublished stratagems on. This was a man of science, a man of stats. And a man of secrets. Since he was headed to a summit at the time of flying, it had been this most precious computer that he took as hand luggage on the plane with him – to bone up on what he planned to discuss.

Just before breakfast that day he’d jolted upright in bed with some idea that had to be written down right there and then – and the only place he could store it safe enough was this mysterious third computer of his. That’s how it happened to be today, rather than any other day that the CD made it into the Betty Ford’s stereo.

That bit’s important. Both of us have tried to find less random excuses, but they just aren’t there.

So the CD opened with Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. Kind of cool but way out of date for the lives us two now led. After Roosevelt came Winston Churchill’s slurring ‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be’. Again, nothing to move a pair of tools like us as we edged along a Southern US highway without much to worry about. Then came Charles de Gaulle, followed by Nehru, Mandela and JFK.

Again, I promise this is exactly how it happened. We must have been only a few miles away from crossing the Mississippi again and leaving Memphis behind when the presenter of the CD announced that the next speech was by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Apparently the words we were about to hear had become ‘a talisman for the downtrodden and the oppressed’. The introduction explained how King blended ‘the cadences of the pulpit with the rhetoric of political speech’. And then, the great wordsmith was unleashed.

‘I am not unmindful…’ rolled Dr King’s voice, a tone songful like a Welsh tenor but for the sadness and controlled anger that reined it in, ‘…that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells…’

On went the speech, to refer in harrowing detail to Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana – each of the states we’d just been through. Mississippi, said that heavenly voice, was ‘sweltering with the heat of injustice’, while Alabama’s governor’s lips were ‘dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.’

And it got us. Quickly, too. As it would you, or anyone else who gives it a full run-through when you aren’t planning to.

I was choking up as he repeated ‘I have a dream’, and by the end bit when he yelled, ‘Thank God Almighty we are free at last’, his voice was consumed by rapturous applause and I was right at the edge. You don’t want to lose it in front of a mate when you’re meant to be on some bromance car journey, but Marc was right there too. But he knew what to do:

Marc simply returned the track to its start, and played the speech again.

This was when the first of the ‘coincidences’ happened. A sign dropped by to our left saying, ‘Museum of Civil Rights, next exit’.

‘Museum of Civil Rights?’ I repeated, first words by anyone living to be said for about half an hour (we’d been drifting in and out through the previous speeches).

‘Yeah, that’s what I thought it said too,’ Marc agreed.

‘That’s weird eh? Wonder if it’s an official one?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, it’s a big country – could be anything?’

‘Dunno. Let’s go and see. Turn off, man.’

‘Okay,’ I agreed, and flicked the indicator on to show that we were about to disembark Interstate 55.

Off the freeway, the signs had disappeared straight away. We meandered along a winding riverside road, which presumably went around the outskirts of Memphis, and then pretty much gave up on the idea.

‘Oh well – now we know what Memphis looks like,’ I told Marc. ‘Let’s try and find the Interstate again, eh?’

‘Might as well – no sign of any museums.’

Using instinct alone, I started tracking back in the direction we’d come from, and before long we were caught by a weird no-turny, filter-lane-type situation and were stuck in downtown Memphis. A sports auditorium stood in front of us, and it was just after passing that that the signs cropped up again.

 

Museum of Civil Rights

 

Yep, they were official, City-sanctioned notices. This was somewhere real, somewhere endorsed – of that we were now sure.

Marc liked this development. ‘Go on – follow them. Let’s check it out,’ he said. ‘After listening to that speech, we have to.’

He had a point.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Keep your eyes peeled for another one.’

Two turnings later we saw what looked like the museum. A swollen, modern building with a parking lot out front. On its edge was a converted motel.

The first thing my eyes noticed was a stall on the cross-roads just outside of the grounds. It was home to a lone female protester, a thin, striking-looking black lady who advertised with a running counter that she’d been camped out here for over a decade.

‘Jacqueline Smith: Campaigning for the truth.’ So ran her slogan, alongside a written request for people to think twice before going into the museum.

We went straight over to ask what this was about.

‘Sir – you go in there, you’re helping them propagate lies. Dr King would never have agreed to twenty million dollars being spent on something like that. He’d have wanted a refuge for the homeless instead. That place hides and helps the racism that’s still aaaaaall around us.’

The mention of the man behind the voice that had so held us just minutes ago went through me. And when I started browsing her brochures the guy was everywhere. Theories that Dr King had been killed by an organised conspiracy. Stuff you wouldn’t find in the museum over there. The truth. Stop the gentrification of this area, she begged:

‘I lived in the motel over there till they threw me out. We gotta make a homeless shelter instead of this museum and continue Dr King’s work. I bin here twenty-eight years and I ain’t goin anywhere. Even camped out here at night till they closed the restrooms.’

Obviously all of this was news to both Marc and I, who knew almost nothing about the circumstances surrounding Martin Luther King’s murder.

We’d soon learn a lot more, though.

The heat was killing me, so I needed to move. Ninety-eight in the shade – Ms Smith had a thermometer alongside the paraphernalia. Full of admiration, I thanked her for her kindness in talking to us, and moved towards the museum doors. She didn’t seem to mind – I got the feeling most people did just that after politely hearing her through.

Even more bewildered as to what we should expect, I paid little-to-no attention to the two vintage Cadillacs parked by the motel section of the museum.

Instead, after passing through the entrance into heaven-sent air-conditioning, I asked a receptionist about Jacqueline Smith.

‘Oh, she’s a lovely woman, but she ain’t never been in here to talk to us. She was helped out with a new place to live, but she chooses to stay there most of the time. Make your own minds up anyway, and have a look around the museum. That’s what she ain’t never done. We’ll talk to her any time.’

And on we moved, still not really sure of where we were or how we’d arrived there.

Inside, a timeline of events took us through the struggle black people had been through to gain legal rights in the USA. Horrific photos and eyewitness accounts told of ill treatments from ostracisation to violent public lynchings. I felt numb. It wasn’t that we were being told anything new, but rather just a reaction to the way this stuff seemed to be trying to find us. The realities of what human history could tell, jumping out to us as real as they’d ever be.

And of course, in due time, the displays came on to the person whose speech we’d heard back on the Interstate.

Martin Luther King’s contribution to the Civil Rights struggle was unequalled. An innately honest and altruistic human being, he took no time to become a figurehead for the movement. Having been raised – son of a Baptist minister, we learned – to a church family in Atlanta, he himself trained as a minister before getting a degree and a PhD in the more tolerant northern states of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Dr King then became pastor of a church in Alabama, I found out – one of the most unjust states in the country at the time. And then he helped organise groups of black churches in the non-violent protests which ultimately brought equal rights to vote, study and work – regardless of race. It was all here for us to see and process. How these marches and ‘sit ins’ were so organised – even down to what to wear, when to use restrooms and which items to pack for lunch if you wanted to avoid a bug. Protesters were trained, prepared and asked to sign contracts promising they would behave peacefully at all times – attention to detail you’d never have known about from snoozing your way through History classes in Porthcawl Comp years before.

And the experience was getting more intense as we moved further through the museum. Again, the knowledge had been there, but had I ever really thought how some of the later Civil Rights protests were taking place in the mid-sixties? A decade in which England had won the football World Cup – an event when both my parents could say exactly what they were doing at the time. It was the same age as the Beatles and The Rolling Stones – most of whom were still alive and even singing from time to time.

Yet, while all this was going on in Europe, Rosa Parks had only a few years previously been arrested for refusing to get out of a bus seat so that an arrogant white man could sit in it instead. There was a life-scale model of the same bus, complete with a statue of Rosa Parks in the right-side window seat. A long ten paces for both of us.

But the biggest impact of this place and its legacy was still ahead.

As we entered the final hall in the timeline, neither of us had any idea what this was. The information began to focus specifically on the life of Dr King, moving towards the events surrounding his assassination.

As we reached the details of how he was shot from a hotel window opposite a place called the Lorraine Motel one morning in 1968, we were being invited to walk up a small flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs was a bedroom, as someone had left it decades before. A cigarette still on the edge of the ashtray. Bed unmade. Mugs and drinks glasses on the surfaces. Next to the room was a window that allowed you to look out over a balcony – sorry, the balcony – onto which Dr King had stepped the morning of his death.

A white wreath, touching distance, marked the spot where he fell. And the two Cadillacs by the entrance? Yes, also as he’d left them on the eve of his murder.

Over the street, now an extension of the same museum, was the window from which the shot had been fired.

The Lorraine Motel’s logo stood, opposite the parking lot, on the same pole, in the same condition as it had that morning in 1968. We’d parked directly underneath it.

In fact, everything, for several square blocks in downtown Memphis had pretty much stopped dead as of that moment. A gunshot that changed human history, yards away from where we were standing, had succeeded in arresting the development of time in one of the most rapidly modernising nations on earth.

Everything had frozen. Including us.

‘I’ll tell you what this was’, says Marc, years on. ‘You know the way time and space exist as this thing way too complicated for most of us to understand? We there was some sort of hole – that’s what it was. Spacetime. That’s what they call it – that fabric-type thing that dips and dents when it feels mass. Yeah. It’s the only explanation. You’re right, you know. That bullet stopped time. There was a pull to that place. Like a gravity well – once you got close enough you just rolled in. Downhill all the way. That’s what it did – the heaviest object draws in the lighter stuff. The importance of that place just pulled all the less important things in.’

And us? Yeah, we got caught in it. I’ve thought about it a lot. It has to be what happened.

A block away from the Museum of Civil Rights, heavy shoulders made even heavier by being back out in the heat, we walked quietly in that neighbourhood that time had left behind.

I suggested we went somewhere for a drink of water.

The owners of Renee’s Sandwich Shop, the take-away we wandered into, had beaming smiles and wanted to know everything about our ‘wonderful’ accents. Over a half-hour break from everything – from Memphis, the Betty Ford and the trip in general – we both ate a sandwich and talked about nothing in particular with the three ladies behind the counter.

‘We’re always real friendly here, sir,’ said one of the kitchen workers. ‘More than in West and Central Tennessee. They ain’t so friendly there – but here in Memphis we real friendly.’

She broke away from conversation for a moment to ask a question to a girl waiting for a sandwich. ‘What dressing d’you want, baby-doll?’

The customer served, she turned back to me and asked what we were doing in the area. Truth was I had no idea.

She pushed a few slices of ham in to the next sandwich in line – mine.

‘Could I have some of those jalapeno peppers in it too?’ I asked.

‘Oh hell! Now you talking! Now you talking!’

Marc wandered outside to use his phone, and while he was gone I asked them about Jacqueline Smith.

‘Oh, she’s a character. She’s part of the Memphis experience now. We all love her, but don’t take her too serious. You met her?’

I asked about the old décor of the streets around us. All listed, protected from change by the City – part of the package sent in with the Museum plans.

‘We ain’t gonna get no high-rise here and all the real old buildings they’re turning into condos. Keeping the fronts like they are now.’

‘That’s great,’ I said.

‘I know. We happy about it. We like Memphis the way it is. You know what, sir… Memphis is just a small town. Only thing is it’s a small town that wants to be a real big town. We’re all hoping it don’t make it. For Memphis’ sake.’

After that I sat quietly, and waited for Marc to return.

‘Let’s go,’ he said as soon as he’d come back into the sandwich shop. ‘I reckon we move on. We’ll only understand this place once we’re out.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘No worries.’

As we rose up the slip-road and back onto the Interstate, I asked Marc, as meekly as I could, if he was aware of exactly what had just happened.

‘How d’you mean?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the CD went on by total coincidence. I didn’t know, you didn’t know. And then we played it a second time – which was exactly when the sign for that place came up. D’you think anyone was trying to tell us something?’

Marc paused, and looked upwards.

‘Let’s just look at the facts,’ he said eventually. ‘We’ve driven all over five states in this car. And within miles of the place where Martin Luther King was killed, total circumstance led us to put a CD of his speech on. As a scientist…? Well, I’m gonna say you’d have grounds for more research.’

‘So you agree we could have just been part of something… you know, something…’

‘I’m not saying that. But I would agree with you on one thing. If you told people how that just happened, most – not all – but most, would never believe you.’

‘You saw it, though.’

‘I did.’

For a moment, Marc and I, however we interpreted the event, were at a moment of total truce. A temporarily aligned outlook. There was an agreement that something had just turned on this journey.


 original illustration by Dean Lewis