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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Field Trip


The scene is the Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee. For those unaware, in addition to its nickname as the birthplace of rock and roll, and being the largest city on the Mississippi River, Memphis is named after another Delta city, the ancient capital of lower Egypt, a mighty dynasty long since vanished into oblivion. Most notably, Memphis is where Martin Luther King was shot. That exact spot being the setting for this encounter. 

King was killed on the balcony of Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel, and as you can see from pictures, something is frozen in time there.  Strikingly, the Civil Rights Museum is built into the Lorraine Motel. Its galleries mushroomed from the original motel, now one of the more intense curatorial excursions you can take in this country concerning the plight of African Americans.  

While setting the scene for an episode that still plays on my mind, let me get the most intense detail out of the way. The museum is laid out chronologically. Exhibits move from the earliest days of American slavery and Middle Passage, through the signal events of African American struggle for Civil Rights. Each room is detailed and arrayed with media, objects, inscription, art, all bearing testimony about tumultuous events. That timeline is still unfolding.

The Museum winds through mighty movements, from sit-ins, to marches, and strikes, and culminates in room 306. One is put IN *the* room, literally.  (Slight clarification- the tour ends in the hall outside the two adjacent rooms King and his entourage were staying in when he was shot on the balcony. The room’s walls were removed and replaced by glass. As was intended, visitors inhabit the crime scene inches from the murder. Nothing has been touched or retouched from that portentous day, April 4, 1968.)

I should probably say a few words about why I was there, but truthfully, other than appetite for insight, and pique towards our craven slaveholding forbearers, not a lot needs to be said.  Now let's turn to the event this piece attempts to illuminate. I was the first visitor of the day that day, and for the first hour I had the Museum pretty much to myself. There was rudimentary Museum security at the entrance, a metal detector, a quick eye-over/pat down. Before too long the school busses began pulling in and the place filled up. In a way it is the quintessential field trip.

A group of local sixth graders were ushered into the building just about at the point in which I was completely leveled, my stomach in knots by the magnitude of oppression and resistance revealed. Like any kid on a field trip would be, these kids are jacked up. And as can be expected, the range of human early adolescent behavior was on display, from flirting to flitting, from those who can’t devour information fully enough to those who seemed to care less.  

The incident occurs at a crucial point in the tour, in a jail cell, a simulation of the very cell King was held in when he was arrested in Birmingham. The set of the cell is open to sit in, bare walls, bars and bed. King reads aloud from a famous letter written from that moment.  At the instant I happened by, three girls were ‘imprisoned’.  They all were thoroughly ‘of 2017’, whatever that means.  In that moment they acted oblivious to the larger context, lounging on the bed, snapping selfies, laughing it up, more in the vein of Jailhouse Rock than reflecting on a cornerstone of historic struggle.

I watched with fascination, not really passing any judgement, the scene did not seem unusual given today’s world. Then out of nowhere, their teacher, or an aide from the school, roars into the cell. He’s screaming at them, demanding they quit their indulgent antics, and show some respect. His tone was harsh, and full of outrage. The girls gave him a ‘whatever dude shrug’. He stormed off, and I don’t know what happened after that.

I have since spent many hours thinking about this moment, I’d like to share some further reflections, but first I’d rather let others react if you are inclined. This seems, given our current struggles, here in Vermont, and in the larger World, an innocuous enough episode on the surface, but maybe scratching the surface can show a bit of where we’re at and what may be coming next.

In closing, words from that letter of Dr. King’s from the Birmingham jail.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistic-ally believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

 

http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/the-children-shall-lead-them

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Day Trips

Ahh, the field trip. (We've even done a few here at iBrattleboro, with trips to the Water Treatment Plant and the VY Training Center.)

...

Sixth grade is hard, and probably the wrong age to do this visit. I would expect those girls to have similar behavior at any other venue, though perhaps the subject matter was causing some nervous laughter type outbursts. It might be too hard to process.

...

We had a similar exhibit at the Children's Museum in DC - Remember the Children. It was the story of the holocaust, and took visitors from a middle class apartment to a ghetto apartment to concentration camps. It ended with lessons and activities about remembering, stopping hatred, and stories of those who went against the grain and helped save people.

One of the most important parts, though, was that camp survivors would talk to kids and tell them their personal story. Really moving, and it both settled and fascinated the kids.

Maybe the Civil Rights Museum has volunteers who tell personal stories of civil rights efforts?

(Everyone should watch Eyes on the Prize at some point.)

...

MLK speeches can still send shivers up my spine, including the one he gave just before being shot. The photo of the hotel balcony with well-dressed men pointing in the direction of the shots is etched in my mind - it is both active and dramatic as well as still and final. I'd probably be an emotional wreck visiting that spot.

...

As kids, we went on field trips to:
- an Iroquois village re-creation
- a nuclear plant
- an Erie Canal museum
- planetariums
- an assortment of museums, parks, trips to see performances

Never had any good factories near us to see any automation. Had to see that on PBS.

 
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a ‘whatever dude shrug’

A museum of events one has actually lived through is different than a museum of events that happened before one’s time. I was 18 when King was murdered. While 50 years ago is only history to people too young or born after the fact, even peripherally, however, I was there as the dreadful history was being made.
The catalyst behind building the museum at the hotel was King’s murder. The historic timeline of slavery and civil rights is embellishment.
I can’t get a sense from your story if black students would have or did have a different reaction when sitting in MLK’s replicated jail cell just feet from the preserved murder balcony, or for that matter, have a sober understanding of what the museum represents.

 
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Field Trap

That detail was omittted intentionally, saying' local' seemed most accurate. All the students I encountered that day were black.

The story really kicks in for me when thinking King was killed 50 years ago, yet slavery was outlawed just three time that measure, 150 years ago. Those students' sixth generation ancestors were the driven labor that made Memphis boom.

 
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coda

There’s something massive about Memphis, a mix of roiling history and shifting demographics. In the 19th century, its fetid waterways gave rise to one of the country’s largest Yellow Fever outbreaks, killing a tenth of its population. For much of this century it’s been high on the A-list of dangerous cities. For years, its murder rate topped the charts. There’s powerful and inspiring allure as well. My southern trip began there, the prime attractor being the blues and the history behind it.

Beale Street, still cranking, is a known cradle of that sound which flowered in the Delta during Jim Crow Era, and flowed up-river, along with obscene fortunes made by cotton. Legendary tributaries, Gospel, R&B, early Rock and Roll (Sun studios/Graceland) all converged in Memphis, making it an undisputed cultural Mecca. From that place on the muddy, dank, big river it’s a hop and skip down highway 61 into Mississippi. There fertile soil and cotton seas stretch out horizon to horizon. A site of inconceivable bondage, and ground zero for the blues.

If you read Alan Lomax’s account of his ethnomusicological field trips, the Delta was saturated by these sounds. Exemplars of mastery were found in Parchman, the state Penitentiary, where many blues greats were held. It didn’t take much for slaves or sharecroppers to find themselves ensnared by the penal system, true then, as it is now. In this light, students in that Civil Rights Museum being at all blithe about the practical consequences of unjust and inhumane policy is tough to fathom.

But that dichotomy has always been part of the legacy. As the blues moved north and morphed in Chicago, memory and reminders of downtrodden and bleak origins were pushed away. It’s complicated, balancing diametrically opposed thrusts— to assimilate in a wary America while also reclaiming roots that were violently cut away.

It was complicated as well to see the girls laughing in that jail cell set. On one hand it’s just a simulation in a Museum. What degree of solemnity should be expected other than letting impressions swirl, and sorting the truth out over a lifetime. That teacher’s rebuke seems a bit histrionic looking back. However justified, I don’t see his tactic leading to its intended effect. And the troubling larger pattern continues. On the whole we’re distracted, addicted to our media bubbles. Corporations continue to consolidate and rampage. And poor people are still under racial assault, even as various so-called signs of progress are noted, and celebrated.

 
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Issues

It is an interesting question - would MLK have approved?

One on hand, there is the issue of "behaving properly in public" and I think he'd want anyone to present themselves as best as possible. So, the girls might get a few demerits there.

On the other hand, free young women doing what they want without much fear at all might have brought a smile to his face. Maybe we've come far enough so that kids can be free to express themselves.

There are sort of two issues - youth and respect, and history and respect - that don't completely align.

Then there is the third element - the observer. What does the observer of this exhibit, with these attendees, on this day - take away. Did they distract from the exhibit and meaning? Did they add to the experience in any way? They certainly provoked some thought.

 
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Got History

Good observations.  Extra ironic that this particular exhibit is about an event in which King enjoined children to further the cause.

http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_child...

Aware that support for protests in Birmingham was waning during April 1963, King and the SCLC looked for ways to jumpstart the campaign. When the arrest and jailing of King did little to attract more protestors, SCLC staff member James Bevel proposed recruiting local students, arguing that while many adults may be reluctant to participate in demonstrations for fear of losing their jobs, their children had less to lose. King initially had reservations, but after deliberation he agreed, hoping for the action to “subpoena the conscience of the nation to the judgment seat of morality.”

 

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