After sampling the “juke joints” of Beale St the night before, today’s main activity in Memphis was to draw on a far less palatable side of the city’s history.
Martin Luther King was assasinated in Memphis in 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, when visiting in support of the city’s sanitary workers. The site has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, which was our first stop of the day.
At the start of the museum tour, a 30 minute film called “The Witness” is screened, the “witness” being the Rev Billy Kyles, who was standing beside MLK when he was shot. This film provides a powerful precursor to the museum visit, and more than one of the viewers seemed to linger in the theatre afterwards to remove the speck of dust that must have gotten in their eye whilst watching the film.
As typical of these museums, an audio guide is provided, which the front desk told us runs for an hour and a half. The guide cannot hope to cover all of the information in the museum, so visitors are encouraged to pause as necessary to take in the material that isn’t covered.
Jane and I hardly spoke to each other on the way around, but as we reached the end of the tour, we realised we had spent closer to 3 hours wandering through the museum. Whilst stories of slavery and the role it played in the Civil War are familiar, they always seem to be tales from the distant past. What struck me most was how relatively recently some parts of America were effectively living in a state of apartheid, and vigorously defending their right to do so.
It was humbling to read of the courage of those who stood up and made a difference in fighting for social change, particularly in an era when the risk of doing so could be quite high. In many cases, they seemed to be young students. As they said, they had no job, no mortgage, no car, so had nothing to lose, and therefore nothing to fear, from being thrown into jail for standing up for their beliefs.
As expected, the museum also chronicled the many achievements and activities of Martin Luther King. The excepts of some of his public speeches really were quite moving in their power and purpose. For someone who had his life cut so short, it was staggering to see how much he packed into his 39 years.
The Civil Rights Museum is one of the better museums I have visited, and you definitely walk away with a much better understanding of a very turbulent and profound period in America’s history.
After leaving the museum, we thought it would be good to balance the day with a visit to Sun Studios, the studios where Elvis Presley got his big break. We arrived with a half hour to kill before the next tour, so we went down the road to the Sky Grille to grab a quick bite to eat.
I mention this because Jane and I both had one of our best lunches on tour. After telling the guy we only had about 20 mins to eat, he whipped up a BLT for Jane and a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich for me. Even though I could feel my arteries closing up with every bite, it was almost a religious experience.
Unfortunately, time didn’t allow us to stay around for the free desert of fried twinkies (I think twinkies were always being eaten by Jughead, of Archie comics fame).
The tour of Sun Studios is ranked the #1 thing to do in Memphis by Tripadvisor, and whilst it was good to do, I think the contributors to Tripadvisor are being generous.
Sun Studios quite rightfully holds a significant place in the annals of music history, and has recorded a long list of major blues and country stars, including BB King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, the King himself.
The tour consisted of a 40 minute walk through a room with a lot of memorabilia and a visit to the studio itself, which is still used as a recording studio. We had a twenty-something, heavily tattoo-ed girl as our guide, and try as she might, the poor thing wasn’t able to elicit much enthusiasm from the mostly grey-haired set that made up our tour group. So worth doing, but #1 attraction in Memphis ???
Jane didn’t feel the need to go to Graceland (I’d been there before), so having received our fill of musical tourist activities, we got on the road again and headed east to Nashville.
210 miles and a long three-hour drive later, mostly through the dark, we were ready to fall into bed by the time we checked into the hotel in Nashville.