Last Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
That observance has always been important to me.
When I was a little kid, about 10 years old, I got ahold of the book “Native Son,” by Richard Wright.
I read a scene in that book, the horror of which haunted me well into my college years. It was the account of the tar-and-feathering of a young and innocent boy.
Native Son was one of the reasons I have lived my whole life with a horror of racism.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand American race history as a result, reading things like W.E.B. DuBois ( highly recommended) Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, biographies of Dr. King and more, eventually researching a novel set during the “Reconstruction” and the epic welter of horror that followed that post-Civil War era, which some called the “Reclamation.”
That particular line of scholarship has left me in despair many times. Sometimes the human race seems entirely undeserving of oxygen.
The last two weeks, I’ve been traveling in the South, and my travels took me to the impoverished town of Clarksdale, Mississippi on Martin Luther King Day.
As it happens, the first major meeting of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was in Clarksdale. It’s a small and quiet town. I can only imagine how conspicuous those people must have felt, and how vulnerable, gathering in large numbers in that small community.
Even today, business owners there have been afraid to talk to major papers about their suspicions regarding the 2013 murder of a black, gay mayoral candidate.
What must it have felt like to gather with Dr. King in the height of the civil rights conflicts, in a community where everyone knows everyone and retribution was likely to be harsh?
A couple days later I found myself going for a walk in a frigid wind in Memphis. It, too, is a city that has seen better days. Amid the empty old brick buildings I noticed a nice modern brick structure. The National Civil Rights Museum, the sign said.
I noticed something incongruous. There was a motel attached to it. I wondered idly if the motel had a partnership with the museum, perhaps even contained part of it, like a hotel in Las Vegas might. Except that it was such a shabby looking motel….
As I got closer, I heard a recorded voice talking about the motel.
Then I saw a great big red and white wreath and it all started to come together in my head. That recorded voice was telling the story of the assassination of Martin Luther King. That wreath…those old classic cars parked below the motel balcony…the room number, 306, at the Lorraine Motel…
This was where Martin Luther King had been shot.
It was one of the greatest shocks of my traveling life. It was like the horror of Native Son blew up on me all over again.
I had not been prepared. I wasn’t ready. I found myself doubling over with my hand covering my mouth, crying hard.
It was a really emotional afternoon, going through the small civil rights museum. It turns out that museum is actually in the boarding house in which James Earl Ray hid and waited for Dr. King to come out on his balcony. The bathroom in which he hid has been preserved. It’s possible to lean forward a bit and look through that bathroom window onto door number 306.
Once I realized that, I recoiled. I couldn’t stand to look at the scene of the assassination from the perspective of the guy who did it.
Because that’s been the point of all of the books and movies and research, all these years; to never step into shoes like his in any way.
To me, that means being careful how I think. It means being careful not to think of any group of people as less valuable than my group.
James Earl Ray is an extreme case of a common malfunction. He was an extreme manifestation of a sense of superiority that can still be very hurtful when it’s practiced on a small scale, like saying nasty things about Spanish speakers, or using the world “gay” as a pejorative or expecting me to laugh at a crude joke about women.
It’s not bothering to vote when the ballot concerns some group other than mine, or getting annoyed when some minority or other still struggles with poverty while not considering all the challenges they face, or thinking that because there are some people who do horrible things to women in other cultures that the whole culture is without merit.
In fact, the last exhibit one sees before leaving the museum is on civil rights struggles still ongoing around the world, in China, Africa and other nations, and it calls on the viewer not to look away, but to care, and when and where possible, act.
It was a message, and a Martin Luther King Day, that I hope I will never forget.