“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963
The Lorraine Motel (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was shot) has been converted into a Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. A path through the motel guides visitors into an interactive series of exhibits, tracking the Civil Rights Movement.
I entered a room of tables with computer screens, walls covered in photographs of civil rights leaders. A mother held a child in her lap, watching a video. The boy was confused why “the white people were mean to the Black people.” I watched as his mother struggled to help him understand. After a minute, he turned in her lap, face to face, and stated: “Racism is bad and it doesn’t make sense.” The entire room looked at the child, and a quiet solidarity began to form.
A large area held a bus with only the back few rows open to Black riders. As we waited to board, a teen stepped forward to help an elderly man climb off of the bus. A younger woman gave her seat to an older woman. Two children climbed into their father’s lap, to make room for another adult, a stranger, to share their seat. Together, we chose the seats in the back. Nobody wanted to touch the seats in the front.
Toward the end of the exhibits, I faced a sheet of glass, separating visitors from the balcony where the Rev. Dr. King took the bullet. On either side, rooms 306 and 307 had been preserved to look exactly as they had when he stayed at the motel. A bed. A chair. An open milk carton.
Through the sheet of glass, the balcony was strangely ordinary, simple concrete with railing. Still, it pulsed with an odd energy. Three of us reached the balcony at the same time. We moved together, complete strangers, one much older than I am, one much younger, different racial heritages. We clasped hands. We stood together for a long moment while the line waited patiently. Nobody spoke. The silent pulse reverberated.
I walked outside. I thought about a child’s truth, an ordinary balcony, reaching for the hands of two strangers. I thought of the triangle trade, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Memphis Sanitation Strike. I closed my eyes for an instant, curious which image would appear in the forefront. Crystal clear, I found myself picturing an open milk carton.
Going forward, I’m bringing the image of that milk carton with me — open and unfinished, basic and vital, extraordinary and familiar, history and forever. When I began writing years ago, I never expected to work on an essay inspired by a milk carton. But I’m okay with it, because the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is humbling, heartbreaking, motivating and awe-inspiring in equal parts.
Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr. Rest In Peace
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