Big mean guys who look like extras from “Prison Break” were called in to drag us out of our beds made of clouds and whipped cream this morning (did we mention we really like The Peabody?), but it was just as well as we wanted to get to the National Civil Rights Museum when it opened at 9am.
This stunning facility is made up of several unified buildings – a new structure adjoins the shell of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and across the street is the boarding house from which the fatal bullet came.
You go through exhibits made up of state-of-the-art graphics, photographs, multimedia and interactive displays, and artifacts which explain the whole history of the Civil Rights movement, starting well before the Civil War and working step by step through the underground railroad, school integration, Jim Crow laws, soda fountain sit-ins, bus boycotts, marches on Washington and so much more.
It cumulates in a hallway positioned between two recreated motel rooms; one a typical one, all made up for the day, the other in a rumpled state, just as it was when its occupant decided to step outside on the balcony. The railing outside has borne a wreath since hours after 6pm, April 4, 1968. This is holy ground, reverent and inspiring silent contemplation as you listen to Mahalia Jackson singing a lament in the background. We dare you to not be moved by this spot.
From there you cross the street and enter a tunnel that takes you upstairs to a recreation of the tawdry room occupied by James Earl Ray. From the seedy bathroom you can see how easy it was to take aim at that balcony across the street.
This section also contains a broader perspective on the meaning and affects of assassination from Yitzhak Rabin to Harvey Milk (shown as stars on the constellation as it would've appeared in Memphis on the night of April 4, 1968) plus an interesting look at the lingering questions of whether or not King’s assassin acted alone.
The man overseeing the door encouraged us not to linger upstairs but quickly move along to the exhibits on the first floor, which emphasize “our accomplishments.”
He said, “You know how Katie Couric started last night? She couldn’t have done that a few years ago. That’s part of the accomplishments.” He’s overlooking Barbara and Connie, of course, but we got his point, and more importantly, his optimism and attitude; why focus on such an ugly and tragic moment? Why not look forward?
The exhibits in toto were so profound we couldn’t really say anything for a long time after, and we aren’t any better at finding the right words now. The one thing that struck us was how massive and seemingly impossible the task was and how each victory was just a small chip away at an edifice that surely would never fall. And yet it did.
That’s where the man at the door was right; it never truly ends. We may have won the battle to desegregate schools but today are higher rates of unemployment for African-Americans; Jim Crow law were declared illegal (and immoral) but there are still women who make less average wages than men and gay people can still be fired from their jobs in 37 states because of their sexuality. We truly honor the incredible work those people did by continuing their struggle in all areas of injustice, and never giving up, because it’s also never truly hopeless.
Despite the fact that our stomachs were in knots over what we had seen, it didn’t prevent us from stopping at two different recommended local favorites. First was Gus’ Fried Chicken.
A local said this was the best fried chicken in the south, and “therefore, in the whole universe.” We would never think to challenge local pride like, nor did we want to, after scoring some golden brown bird that was so juicy it was like biting into a ripe piece of fruit. Spicy, crispy, perfect. Wow.
Ten minutes later we were ready for lunch number two. If that is even the least bit surprising to you, you obviously have not read days one through five of Plucky Survivors See America. Or met us.
We were driving right past Interstate Bar-B-Que, recommended by an LA friend (nd backed up by a number of locals) on our way out of town. Their motto “I have been to Hog Heaven” is earned, at least, based on Mary’s pulled pork sandwich, which fell apart as she ate it (that may have more to do with her speed eating style than the tenderness of the meat and bun, though that, too). Rick’s hot dog was only so-so. That’s probably his fault for ordering it, but the experiment was a worthy one.
We headed south on Highway 61 past Tunica, home of many Vegas style casinos. Say what you will about the evils of gambling, but the money flowing into the Tunica area was obvious from the roads and schools, and have played a big part of the recovery of the state after Katrina so you won’t hear us saying anything bad about them. Mary, knowing Rick, held her hand on the steering wheel so that he couldn’t turn in to try his luck on the slots.
Our next stop was Clarksdale, epicenter of Delta Blues. This is where Son House and Robert Johnson got their starts, among others and the musical genre is honored at the Delta Blues Museum, a handsome converted old train station.
We had high hopes for this, being blues fans, and Mary in particular a Delta blues fan. But the exhibits were random and poorly organized, with no sense of chronology nor context. They had a few interesting things, but the only knock-out was a temporary one; the sharecropper’s cabin occupied by Muddy Waters and his family during his childhood. This humble dwelling was restored thanks to efforts from House of Blues owner Isaac Tiggert, and an experience for any Muddy fan (or any blues fan looking for a visual on where the blues really comes from—poverty), but it’s a traveling exhibit that will eventually be returned to its original plantation location. That in and of itself is not a bad thing but it does leave the Delta Blues Museum without much of a hook.
Inside is a guitar that a ZZ Top member had made out of a plank of the cypress wood he took from the cabin when it was in near-ruins, meticulously crafted into the style of guitar favored by Muddy himself, complete with a squiggle painted on it to simulate the Mississippi. What a great homage, what a connection and continuity, what a talisman—but it’s sitting in a glass case, not being played. What a waste. And in a way, it’s a metaphor for how we found the museum on a whole; a terrific idea, the best of intentions, and squandered opportunities. Delta blues, both musically and historically, are anything but dry museum pieces. Someone who knows how to write museum copy please call them and offer your services, okay?
Before we left town, we stopped at the crossroads. Okay, there are many, and Robert Johnson probably made his deal with the devil at a lonelier, more remote set of roads, but this is the famous intersection of Highways 49 and 61 and that was good enough for us.
Now, Robert Johnson, so the story goes, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for playing the guitar like no one else. What did we do? We don’t know if the devil was there or not because we were too busy looking at Delta Donuts across the street and wondering why it wasn’t open. A closed donut shop; if that’s not Satan’s handiwork, we don’t know what is.
Speaking of that, one of Mary’s existential questions on the trip has been; why do we only pass frozen custard stands when we can’t stop for frozen custard? Just asking.
Speaking of existentialism, you are probably wondering about today’s Cow match. It was bad. It was so bad that we had to change it to a new game called Cemetery because that’s all we saw for a very, very long time. The score was 3 ½ to 3 ½ before any cows turned up, and those happened in the last minutes of our drive, along with more cemeteries, and in the end, the tally was 7-0, Rick.
We decided to cut out our jaunt to Holly Springs due to timing and dawdling issues (we’ll update the maps later, promise) and stop instead in Oxford.
We’ve heard many fine things about this town and sure enough it was Hollywood movie set pretty. We’re talking Southern town cliché pretty. Just really, really pretty. Of course we had about fifteen minutes to spend there since we were determined to get to Tupelo before the Elvis birthplace closed. It seemed important at the time.
But in that short time we got a lot done. First we dropped by Faulkner’s grave to say howdy. That’s was the ½ part of our game of Cemetery since it was on Mary’s side of the car when we got there and Rick’s side when we left. We make up the game, we make up the rules, got it?
Next a quick stop at town square bookstore for a big Faulkner bio. “Girl wants big heavy books, girl carries big heavy books,” Rick muttered, to which Mary replied ‘At least I didn’t pick up any more rocks.”
We grabbed a Mississippi Mud Pie snow ball and the stand-out chocolate shake of the trip at a snow ball stand and, mmmmm, cupcakes at a bakery next door. What? We had two lunches, we needed two desserts! Again, have you met us?
Finally we dropped at Ole Miss (such a gorgeous campus, Mary is quite jealous) so that Mary could quickly kiss her friend Caitlyn (a new freshman) and hand her the snowball, since she’s from New Orleans and likely misses them. We were sorry we had to kiss and run but the clock was ticking in Tupelo. (Rick: “She’s lucky we even stopped the car.”)
It turns out that the beginning of the Elvis story was a lot more interesting to us than the end of the story back in Memphis. The two room shack where The King was born in 1935 was purchased by Elvis during the 1950s and immediately donated to the town. In the 1970s a foundation restored it and added an adjacent small museum, gift shop, chapel, and a timeline. The exhibits in the museum portion felt more personal than those at Graceland, shining a brighter light on his origins and his career. For instance, did you know that Elvis’ personal designer was dismayed by the fact that Presley’s shirt kept coming untucked during a concert and that is what led him to creating the one-piece jumpsuits? Now you do.
Meanwhile Mary unnerved the otherwise rather hilarious women working the place (they kept telling each other, via walkie-talkie, about the whereabouts of a certain rather zealous visitor—whatever you do, don’t get him started on his karaoke career) by asking detailed questions about the location of Elvis’ stillborn older twin brother, Jesse. She just wanted to know because she’s a cemetery and celebrity grave buff and had thought he was buried on the grounds. It turns out he’s in an unmarked grave down the street, and Mary’s questions like “But did the family even know the section of cemetery?” prompted one lady to say to another, in earshot of Rick, “She think she’s gonna find that grave, doesn’t she?” You may add the eye roll.
And yes we went to said cemetery but no, we didn’t find the section. It’s apparently occupied by other Presleys, but Mary couldn’t spot them.