This was a bit of a somber day, but one I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
We started off by trying to go to Roxie Grocery, a breakfast spot that was recommended to us by The Child. But it was padlocked and clearly not opening any time soon. So we ended up going back to The Cupboard for a delicious breakfast. It’s funny – I almost never eat breakfast at home. I am usually just not in the mood. But on vacation, I always want breakfast – a big one with eggs, pig-something, grits and biscuits! Even at the beach, where it’s hot and you’d think all I’d want is maybe fruit and toast.
The majority of our day was spent at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The Lorraine Motel is the place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, just 2 months before Bobby Kennedy. I remember that terrible year and those events even though I was only 9. We lived in Alexandria, VA, just outside of Washington, DC. The day after Dr. King was killed the riots started in Washington. I remember my mother calling from work that afternoon and saying that she might be late because of the ‘trouble’. She didn’t have a car and the bus system was disrupted. I think she ended up getting a ride home from someone, but she was still late. I was so frightened and confused. My mom, unlike the rest of her family, was a Democrat and pretty liberal and that was how she was raising me. I knew about the problems that our country faced with regards to race (at least as much as a child could) and I knew about Dr. King. I was too young to remember the March on Washington, but knew about and was stirred by his “I have a dream” speech. I knew about non-violence and couldn’t understand why people were being violent when they were sad about Dr. King. I was much too young to understand frustration and what years of being mistreated and oppressed can do to a person. As an adult, I can conceive it, but, being white, I can’t really KNOW it.
Years later, in high school, I did a year-long term paper on Three Pacifist Leaders in History: Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I really researched, for the first time, the history of race in America and the miracle of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. It opened my eyes and broke my heart, both that people could be so cruel to their fellow man and that Dr. King and the non-violence movement could exist in the midst of so much hate. I learned of recent lynchings (and for the first time, realized the meaning of the song “Strange Fruit”), of the Ku Klux Klan (which I had thought was pretty much moribund) and of what could be accomplished when people got together and said “this must stop”. I was astounded by the courage of the people in the movement. And by the courage of Dr. King, who knew he was a target and even spoke about not being here for the journey.
I should say that there are two periods of history that disturb me to the point that I avoid reading about them or watching movies or TV programs about them. Those are the Holocaust and the years leading up to the Civil Rights movement. Even thinking about these times causes extreme anxiety and so, childishly, I tend to evade them. I haven’t seen the Holocaust museum in Washington yet, even though it has been open since 1993 and I’ve been up there numerous times. I haven’t even been to the one in Richmond VA – WHERE I LIVE. So, as you can imagine, going to the Civil Rights museum, the actual spot where one of my heroes was killed was not high on my vacation wish list. But I knew that I needed to go, that it was an important place – both historically and to me.
Before we even got to the museum, we sighted this Historical Marker nearby. It set the somber tone:
If the day before I’d wandered through Stax with a smile on my face, this day I walked through the museum clutching a tissue with tears running down my face. Mr. Kim and I hardly spoke to one another – we each went at our own pace and came together occasionally. And we took hardly any pictures. Neither did anyone else. I snapped one in the first gallery, but the tone and mood of the place quickly penetrated. Taking pictures here would be as appropriate as taking them at a funeral. This is the sign at the motel and a picture of the motel balcony with a permanent wreath:
I can’t see that balcony without seeing the image of everyone one it pointing to where the shot had come from and Dr. King crumpled on the cement.
The museum is truly a wonder and a national treasure. The museum encompasses the motel, including a glassed in walk-through of his actual room set up how it must have looked that evening. Attached to that is the real ‘museum’ part with incredible exhibits spanning the history of African-Americans and the civil rights struggle in this country. Starting in Africa and going up through the present day, including human trafficking and child labor and female rights suppression across the world. To say that it is complete and awe inspiring is not enough. Nothing that I could say would explain the impact of it. Every single person in the US should tour it and experience it.
The other part of the complex includes the rooming house where the fatal shot came from. This building is filled with exhibits detailing the search for the shooter and subsequent investigations. Seeing that room, set up to look exactly like it looked the day that James Earl Ray aimed at Dr. King is heartrending. The evil that people are willing to do from fear and prejudice is horrifying.
It takes about four hours to really walk through it and look at everything. Think of that – there was so much to see and read and experience within the confines of a small motel’s shell. It was exceptionally well planned out, neither preachy nor incendiary, though this could easily have been either. The museum ends as many do – with a path through the gift shop. As with the photos, I couldn’t see profaning the place by walking out with an MLK I have a dream t-shirt or a wall plaque of a burned out bus. We did buy an illustrated book on the museum itself for later viewing. Most everyone was somber and reflective after the walk-through.
And then we went to dinner. It is a little ridiculous how quickly the mundane follows the profound, huh? But that’s the way life works. Dr. King’s motel room had newspapers strewn around, half-filled coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. A life to get back to when he stepped back into his room. Except he didn’t – and life changed for so many.
Dinner was at Payne’s BBQ:
This place was highly recommended by the folks at Chowhound.com. Just a neighborhood joint like so many of the places that we went to. These places are the kind that the South abounds in. Little places that seem to be hardly worth a glance, a bit shabby and in sketchy neighborhoods. But if you take a chance, you are likely to find something truly special. We certainly did at Cozy Corner and we did again this day at Payne’s. “Where’s my BBQ?”:
I had to try the tamale:
I grew up eating canned Hormel tamales. Everyone in my mom’s family ate them. I didn’t know anyone else that liked them, or even knew what they were. My mother’s family only. This made no sense to me – we were of Italian extraction and they all were brought up in the South – the Mississippi Delta region, NOT Texas or Arizona. When I grew up and started learning about food and food culture, I finally put it together. Tamales are a HUGE thing in the Delta. There are lots of theories as to why, but it seems that tamales have been part of the Delta food culture since at least the 1920’s. The Delta includes towns like Clarksdale, Rosedale and Shelby - towns that I grew up hearing about. THEN I got it. Turns out that those canned ones are a little mild. This tamale was a LOT meatier and a good bit spicier than the canned ones. It was delicious, but I couldn’t finish it! We also went for a chopped sandwich and ribs:
The sauce was fantastic. Almost as good as Cozy Corner’s. And the mustard slaw is one of our favorites, too. We discovered mustard slaw at a little cement block box of a place somewhere in NC and fell in love. It is the perfect BBQ slaw. The ribs were gorgeous – meaty, fatty and porky! That is a half portion! We were still eating it when we got home (NEVER travel without a cooler!). We found these cookies at Payne’s and also at a little corner store we stopped at for drinks:
I wish I’d bought a case. I figured if they were made by somebody’s momma, they’d be good. Check out that ingredient list: flour, sugar, butter, vanilla and baking soda. They were the perfect, simple cookie – deep butter and vanilla flavor and crisp!
We made one more stop, this time in downtown at the Cake Gallery. Kim was doing her pre-shopping to plan on what we would come back for as we were leaving town. This boutique appears to serve sandwiches and light lunches (we were not there at the right time for this) and delightful layer cakes in interesting flavors. Kim made mental notes on what to buy later, and picked up some cookies for our long drive back to the hotel in Arkansas (about 5 miles away.)
Back to the hotel to organize and pack up. We are sorry to leave Memphis – we truly fell in love with the city and hope we get to come back sometime!