The walk between the bright lights of Beale Street and the Lorraine Motel is not a highly trod tourist route. It’s not dangerous, just gritty. The kind of day time walk that won’t set off alarm bells for a slightly adventurous 25-year-old, but would have his mother clutching her pearls. There are no signs of crime, just vacant lots and a just-almost unsettling infrequency of pedestrians. In short it is reminiscent of the half of Memphis that most likely rises to the average American mind after it is done thinking about Graceland.
To me, Memphis was beautiful. In 2006 my experience exploring Southern cities was more limited than it is now. My experience with the South largely consisted of brief interactions with gas station cashiers off I-75 on the road to Florida. Like every American I knew all about Southern racism. But in Memphis I didn’t see it. I was taken aback by how integrated the crowd was everywhere I went. Interracial couples, yes, but I was far more surprised at the number of large groups of friends with an almost 50-50 ratio of black and white. Until this moment it had not occurred to me how rarely I saw this in the North. All of a sudden my mind registered Memphis as a racial wonderland, and the American South as a misunderstood story, fighting hard to erase its past and position itself as one of our greatest success stories in the fight for equality.
So this is what I thought about as I walked. The vibes gave me what I recognized even at the time as an exaggerated sense of idealism. Intellectually I knew racism was still alive and well, almost certainly even within those mixed groups of picnickers and tourists. But it was a formative experience for me. What I saw around me were people who got along, who showed appreciation for their differences and similarities. I wanted to know this city and I wanted to know other cities and learn more about people.
Inside the old Lorraine Motel is the very well done National Civil Rights Museum. Outside the motel, this plaque commemorates the spot where Martin Luther King’s living work was cut short:
This time of year it is common to hear two groups of people with polar opposite opinions wax eloquently over “whether or not King’s dream has been realized.” One side claims to idolize King as a freedom fighter from a distant past whose work neatly wrapped up the Civil Rights era and ushered in a color blind world. The other side argues that we still live in a hate-filled society that does nothing but stomp on his legacy. Both sides are wrong because dreams are not linear. There is no moment in time when King’s dream will be realized, wrapped up, and stored in a museum for posterity to gawk at. But I never want to find myself too cynical to acknowledge the great progress our society has made. In Memphis I saw people who judged each other on the content of their character. At least for the moment I was a believer that the dream of Martin Luther King was in good hands.