Friday, October 8, 2010

The Legacy of Courage: The Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel in central Memphis is chrome and 1950s aqua. It stands just two stories high with a simple wreath on the rail outside room 306 where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed and died in April, 1968.

In Memphis for the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, King spoke of history, of resolve, of justice, perseverance, and his certainty that right causes will lead to right ends--even if he were not among those alive at the end. His words seem prophetic, and they were. King died outside room 306, but the cause for which he spoke, marched, and suffered continues to bend toward right ends. The National Civil Rights Museum, attached to the Lorraine, tells the story. You simply must read that story by walking the aisles and interacting with the excellent, thought-provoking displays.

The Lorraine experience begins with a short film entitled “The Witness,” an Oscar-nominated HBO project featuring Reverend Kyles who was present on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine. He offers a personal account of the strike that brought King to Memphis in support of sanitation workers whose cause was simple human rights, captured in the strike slogan: I am a Man. Kyles’ recollection and the history woven into the film will not fail to move those who stand for right, justice, and humanity. The film is as eloquent and spiritual as Atticus’ closing argument in behalf of Tom Robinson.

The National Civil Rights Museum continues with an exhibit entitled “Unremitting Struggle,” representing the years 1619-1865. Next are the strategies and organizations formed to implement those strategies during the years 1865 through 1940. Beyond those are exhibits representing the years of protest and change, marked by the decision to de-segregate the armed forces, Emmett Till’s horrible, tragic death, the Brown versus Board of Education decision, a bus boycott in Montgomery, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, school de-segregation, sit-ins, marches, speeches, and more.

During these years of change, as our nation slowly evolved toward equal access to the American dream, violent and non-violent means became the subject of national debates. Change agents formed organizations around the principles of violent action and passive resistance. Our nation would never be the same, yet we are better for it.

Certainly, equal access to the American dream remains a goal toward which many continue to strive. Our nation still falls short of measuring a man “by the content of his character” rather than “the color of his skin,” but we are closer than we were in 1865 and 1965. May we arrive by 2065--if not long before.

To achieve our goal, we must, as Atticus begged, do our duty in the courtroom of society. We must be fair, impartial, and true to the high ideals expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution with its prudent amendments.