Our country is in a sad state. We’re divided over politics. We’ve got two pretty crummy options for president. We continue to deny that we have a race problem. We need some healing!
While in Memphis with my family, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is housed in what used to be the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and continues across the street into the boarding house where James Earl Ray, his assassin pulled the trigger on that fateful April evening in 1968.
My wife and I had contemplated whether or not to take our kids to the museum. In truth, it was probably more for me than for them, but I still feel like it’s never too early to get kids to think correctly about race and race relations. Did they take it all in? No. Did they see things, hear things, and read things that they can’t unsee, unhear, and unread? Probably, but isn’t that our lives every day?
My daughter was too young, she just didn’t get it. No crime there, it’s hard to be four years old and be thrust into this crazy world and the various issues that we are facing. My oldest probably got way more than I think he did, enough so that I need to figure out how to get some one on one time with him in the near future to talk through his own processing of what he saw, heard, and read.
The first thing that we noticed as we went into the museum was that we were in the minority. There weren’t many white folks in there, and that kind of made me sad. Why? Did others not think it was important? Did they come on other days? Was this just an off day?
As I looked around at the mostly African American patrons, I wished that I could see things through their eyes. I felt as white and privileged as I am. I knew that my perspective was skewed in such a way that there was something that I just couldn’t see, something that I just couldn’t feel because of who I am. As they looked at the statues of slaves, of oppressed, of tormented African Americans, I wondered what they saw. As they looked at the displays of those who had stood up, who just couldn’t take it anymore, I wondered whether there was a pride in them, a pride in seeing someone stand up for what was right, of seeing someone finally put their foot down.
As we walked through the museum, I knew that I had to skip so much of what was there in order to keep our sanity and the attention of my young children. My four year old was running ahead. As I read what I could, as I looked at the pictures, as I took it all in, there were some sights that made me well up. For instance, to see the mugshots of some of these African American women who had stood up for what they believed, you could just see it in their faces, they were pissed off. They’d had enough. They weren’t going to take it anymore, not in a Beastie Boys or Twisted Sister kind of way, but in a real, legitimate way, in a way that says, “We’ve had enough of being treated as less than human!”
As the story of civil rights unfolds around you through pictures, through voices, through news stories, you arrive at this sacred place, the reconstructed rooms where Martin Luther King, Jr. and his friends and colleagues stayed on the night of April 3, 1968. Did they know what would happen just twenty-four hours later?
Then you walk across the street and see things from the other side, from the eyes of the killer, the man who thought that violence was the way to solve a problem, the man who snuffed the life of a man who, though far from perfect, had accomplished so much for black people and minorities in this country.
There are moments in life when you can sense that there is something different, something special, something sacred. This was one of them. To say that I wanted to drink in the moment seems to shortchange it, to cheapen it. I wanted to freeze time to hear the voices of everyone who had stood in this place, to drink in all that I had just absorbed, to hear what they experienced while they were there.
After we left Memphis, I asked my wife to stop by the home of Medgar Evers in Jackson Mississippi. Two men. Two activists. Two families shattered by hate. Two places where death was in the air and where hate did its best to conquer love and freedom. It was all a lot to process, but I did my best.
I wonder what others think when they walk those hallowed walls. I wonder what they feel when they look at those rooms, when they look through those windows, when they see things the way that two men on different sides saw things one day in April nearly 50 years ago.
I wish somehow we could require people to walk through these walls, but you know the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” You can’t force people to see something that they aren’t willing, aren’t capable of seeing. So, I did the next best thing, I brought my kids, and when we were done, we had a little talk. We talked about why people would hate others because of the color of their skin. They couldn’t come up with any really good reasons, in fact, I don’t think they could come up with any reasons. For that, I am proud, because there aren’t any good reasons.
Yet we still find ourselves in this place, at this time, in our country. Black men are threatened and fear for their lives just for being black. Police officers fear the retaliation because of the actions of a few. The rest of us play armchair quarterback because we think that the media is actually portraying things fairly and balanced. There are at least three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.
As I walked through the museum, I wanted to hug every African American brother and sister that I saw to tell them that I saw them for who they are. I wanted to tell them that my heart broke for them, for their families, for their children. I wanted to ask them what I could do. I wanted to, even for just one minute, feel what they were feeling inside, good, bad, and ugly.
In the end, we can only affect the people who are directly around us in hopes that the ripples of that change might go out from where we are, into our communities, into our towns and cities, into our states, and throughout the world. Change starts small, but when it’s combined with the force of others moving in the same direction, it becomes a momentous force that can rise up and conquer. But that force doesn’t come when we separate ourselves, when we segregate ourselves, it can only happen when we come together to hear what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
I’m not doing enough, but awareness is the first step, education is a close second. Where we go next will be the challenge. The first place that I can start change is in me, I can only hope that it snowballs from there!