January 17, 2005

National Martin Luther King Day

Today is National Martin Luther King Day in the US. School is out, many businesses are closed, and people across the country reflect on the life and death of the man whose dream was the fuel that ignited America's civil rights movement.

The kids and I paid our respects to Dr. King's memory one Memphis morning just after dawn. We were about 2,000 miles into our post-9/11 journey across America, and we had to tuck hundreds of miles under our tires that day, but I couldn't leave Memphis without parking in front of the Lorraine Motel and spending a few quiet moments there.

An excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America, Chapter 4 - FROM MEMPHIS TO THE DELTA: Mississippi, Louisiana:

At the Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street, I held the cellphone up to the band so Mike could hear some blues. The music was wonderful, but I was more excited by my still novel ability to make a phone call from the middle of a Memphis dance floor.

We left Beale about 7:30 p.m., just as dusk dropped and seriously armed and muscled cops in groups of four began to appear. On the riverbank, people filed up the gangway for the 8 p.m. cruise on the Mississippi Queen. The night and the river were red and purple, and the soft green lights on the steel bridge that held the Arkansas state line in its middle glowed like mints.

Before we left Memphis early the next morning, we stood in front of the Lorraine Motel. A white wreath hangs on a blue metal railing, marking the second-floor room where Martin Luther King died. I’d hoped to see Jacqueline Smith, the protestor who’s camped for years across from the Lorraine and who lived in it before it became the National Civil Rights Museum. All her stuff was there on the corner. Her boxes and cardboard and signs. I half-wanted to stick around and meet her. I wanted to hear her story. I wanted to hear her tell how money spent on the museum could do more civil right by improving living conditions for Memphis’ black poor. But we had miles to cover, and Smith was still in bed somewhere, probably on a friend’s couch. We left Memphis as the sun rose, rays bouncing off a riverbank jogger puffing along in something that looked like a tin foil spacesuit.

Shortly after a quick stop at the graffiti wall outside Graceland, where I took a picture of Roop and his father from California and mentioned, perhaps unwisely, that we weren’t real Elvis fans, we entered Mississippi and rode the sterile interstate all the way to Vicksburg. We drove the powerfully haunted battlefield road and looked down sobering rows of endless gravestones in the cemetery.

“Ribbons of Highway” proceeds go to tsunami relief. Details in Jan. 2 post.