Archives For civil rights trail

tenn sign

After New Orleans we stopped over in Jackson, Mississippi for the night, then headed up to Memphis the next morning for Day 21. This would be a mix of history and fun: our last stop on the Civil Rights Trail and music on Beale Street!

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Piggly Wiggly historical sign in Memphis

I didn’t know Piggly Wiggly started in Memphis. I’ve never been in one, but always loved the name.

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trolley

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I expected Memphis to be a more bustling large city, like Atlanta. But it’s small and looks a bit tired. We took a trolley through the old downtown shopping area. Many storefronts were vacant and there were few people; it was sad. The decline of old shopping areas in any city depresses me. Surely this stretch of Memphis was a bustling place full of life at one time. Malls were one of the worst ideas of the 20th century.

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Lorraine Motel sign, Memphis, Tennessee

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We got off the trolley at the Lorraine Motel, the site of MLK’s assassination. It was chilling and sad and a bit surreal to see the balcony, thinking of that famous photo. I have vague impressions of the event — I was seven and a half. I have more memories of RFK’s assassination two months later. It was the first time I understood that a big world existed beyond my backyard swing set. 1968 — what a year. Similar to 2020, adults must have been wondering what the hell was going on. 

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Balcony at Lorraine Motel, in Memphis Tennessee

Like a moment frozen in time, the end of one man’s path toward a dream shared by many.

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rooming house

The rooming house where James Earl Ray took his shot is just across from the motel. Such evil in an unassuming place. Chilling.

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Having seen MLK’s birthplace in Atlanta, churches he preached at, and the site of his “I Have a Dream” speech, it felt like we had come full circle, tracing the arc of his life. I’m glad Mtuseni was interested in all of it. When we were in Cape Town we saw the balcony where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech after being released from prison. Locations of historic events like this just give me goosebumps.

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am a man

A fitting last photo for the Civil Rights Trail leg of our road trip.

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We passed up going in the Civil Rights Museum; the line was long and the heat was cranking up. Luckily a woman downtown told us about Central BBQ, right behind the Lorraine. I’m not a huge meat fan but ate every bite of a pulled pork sandwich the size of my head. Mtuseni polished off a rack of ribs; the bones looked like they’d been bleached white in the desert when he was finished. When in Memphis, you gotta do BBQ!

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central q inside

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central q sign

Thanks to the woman on the street for the tip on this place. I didn’t have to do BBQ research!

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After lunch we walked past the entrance to Beale Street. It was mid-afternoon and I knew it would be more lively at night. There didn’t seem to be much else to do, so we headed over to a park along the Mississippi River. And this is where my big meltdown occurred.

We’d had three weeks of temps over 90 degrees… every freakin’ day. You know it’s bad when Southern weather forecasters talk about record-breaking heat! There was no respite in the park, not one tree. I sat in a thin strip of shade next to a wall of the visitors center — which was closed for a wedding. I was tired and cranky and done. I wanted to cancel the hotel that night and immediately head for Texas in the air-conditioned car. I was like a four-year-old having a whiney tantrum.

Mtuseni found another shady place to sit, away from my bitching. At home he doesn’t have air conditioning. Or heat. Or electricity. If it’s cold, he’s cold. If it’s hot, he’s hot. Not that he doesn’t complain when he’s home. (I’ve heard it so many times over the years!)  But in his community, you just live with stuff.

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river boat

The view from my heat stroke induced meltdown… the mighty Mississippi.

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After a while I snapped out of it and we headed over to Beale Street — and had a blast! We checked out BB King’s store, people watched, and marveled at all the neon. We were so full from Central BBQ we didn’t want dinner.

 

beale st mtu day

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B.B. King's Company Store in Memphis Tennessee

Cool store. I could have bought a ton of stuff but didn’t want to carry it all night.

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stax shirt

I really wanted this t-shirt but it was sold out. I wanted to see the Stax Records Museum, too, but it was a drive from downtown and had odd hours.

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beale neon crowd2

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We ended up watching the Redemption Day Band in a small park for free. The band was so tight, playing blues and funk and R&B. The leader and singer was in his 70s, and he never stopped. We watched for over two hours, had some beer and wings, singing along. (Well, I did!) And they just kept going. The guy’s probably still singing! 

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band dancer

This old guy had a good ol’ time dancing much of the night, sometimes convincing a young woman to join him. Music keeps people young!

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The vibe was so happy and mellow, everyone enjoying music and laughing and dancing on a late summer night. When the leader asked people putting tips in the bucket where they were from it was all over the world! Then a woman who’d been dancing up front by herself for much of the night dropped in her dollar. The guy asked, “Where you from, darlin’?” She said, “Up the street.” Everyone laughed. By then it felt like we were all part of the neighborhood.

Check out our Instagram for a hello from Beale Street!

I’m so glad I didn’t bail and leave Memphis early. We had such a fun time. It was a great send off as we set out for a trip milestone the next day — crossing the mid-point of the country. And thankfully leaving the southeastern heat and humidity behind. 

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blues sign pair

So long from Memphis!

miss sign

After celebrating Mtuseni’s birthday the night before, we returned to downtown Montgomery on Day 17 to see some sites on the Civil Rights Trail. With the Memorial for Peace and Justice closed, there weren’t a lot of options; that had been the main reason to stop in Alabama. 

Even during late morning, with all the government offices, there were hundreds of empty parking spaces everywhere. And no people up and down the wide quiet streets. It felt like a Twilight Zone episode.

Maybe the streets were empty because the heat and humidity were mind-boggling. It felt like the sun was ten feet above us and white hot. (And it had been record-breaking heat above 90 every day since we began the trip!)

Having seen the experience of slaves at the Museum of African American History in DC, I told Mtuseni to imagine what it must have been like picking cotton in the fields all day in heat like this — and certainly no AC or refrigerator to come home to. Actually you can’t imagine it; we were melting just walking a block. I don’t know how they did it. 

The story of Rosa Parks has always fascinated me. The courage and impact of one woman’s simple act, to just say, “Enough.” I’ve always wanted to see where she waited on that day. I don’t know what I expected, to see a bus stop and streetscape from the 1950s I guess. To really get a feel for her life then. But the bus stop is nothing more than a sign, surrounded by modern buildings. All context was gone.

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bus stop sign

This was pretty much it for Rosa Parks’ bus stop. My face pretty much explains my impression.

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We passed on the Rosa Parks Museum. Montgomery had been so underwhelming and we knew it wouldn’t compare to the museum in DC. So we walked back up to the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, who created the stunning and emotional Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. As a big fan of architecture and the new more immersive style of memorials, I was excited to see it. 

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Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery Alabama

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But even this disappointed. I’d expected it to be massive but it’s quite small, tucked on a little plaza to a building. It’s lovely, meticulous, tranquil — but the size limits its impact. It feels like a fountain in a mall. Sorry, Maya!

We did stumble on a cool mural commemorating the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. I think that was the highlight of the city visit.

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"A Mighty Walk from Selma" mural in Montgomery, Alabama

“A Mighty Walk from Selma” … luckily we came across this mural while staggering in the heat.

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Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama

Yet another church that wasn’t open. When I was a kid churches were open all the time… if you needed to pop in for a quick prayer or respite from the world.

We made our way to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where MLK was pastor in the late 1950s, but like the church in Savannah it was closed for a private tour. And that closed our visit to Montgomery. We got in the car, cranked the AC, and made a beeline for our stopover in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The Gulf of Mexico was pretty much what I’d heard: flat and gray and hot. For someone whose soul is fed by the ocean, I didn’t even go on the beach. Mtuseni did, and created a surprise for me that will have to wait for an October post.

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gulf pool

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Our hotel was right across from the beach and had a small pool. I plopped into it, ready to be refreshed and awakened, but it was warmer than bath water. There was no escape from that sticky heat outdoors.  

The best part of Gulfport was finally solving the mystery of the Waffle House! There was one sitting by its lonesome in a field next to our hotel. We’d started seeing the yellow-tile signs as we entered the South. They were everywhere! I had no idea what the place was. Mtuseni wasn’t curious, but I had to know.

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waffle house sign

After seeing this sign along highways across the South, we finally discovered what delights awaited inside!

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So breakfast the next morning was at the Waffle House. I love diners. I almost did my practicum documentary on a diner in college. The movie Diner is one of my all-time favorites.

I was psyched to sit at the counter and order simple over-easy eggs, bacon, and toast. After weeks of the same free buffet in hotel after hotel (where I never used that awful waffle machine) a made-to-order breakfast was heaven. I explained to Mtuseni the whole diner culture, sitting at the counter, the short order cook right in front of you, the waitress calling out orders in shorthand and knowing the regulars by name. Pure Americana. I was immediately a Waffle House fan.

And of course I had a waffle, too! (It was tasty, but I didn’t finish  it.)

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waffle house ctr

I look fat in this picture. Partly it’s the shirt — and partly it’s the effects of sitting and driving for days. For the South, I probably look anorexic.

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(Just joining us? Since everyone’s in various states of corona lockdown,  we’re reliving the Long-Distance Dad road trip from last fall! Start the journey with us back on the August 30 post. Ride along with us — in your easy chair — across 10,000 miles into October.)

auburn street

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Day 15 was our last day in Atlanta. After picking up Mtuseni from church, we headed to the birthplace and resting place of Martin Luther King, Jr. — the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.

Not far from the shiny towers of downtown, the tree-lined street has humble, well-kept wood frame houses with porches and picket fences. It seemed a little crazy to just park on the street like we were going to pop in to someone’s house for coffee and cobbler — when we were visiting the home of a renowned leader. But it’s the same at JFK’s birthplace in Brookline. Actually, the street reminds me of Brookline a little.  

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king plaque

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Martin Luther King Juniors birthplace house in Atlanta

MLK’s birthplace. Who could have imagined the life this sweet little house would produce.

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The house offered timed tours but neither of us was that interested; it’s basically an old house. But we did browse the gift shop on the first floor and picked up some souvenirs on the way back. 

Just about a block down the street is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Sr. and his son had preached. I could imagine the family just walking from home to the church, waving and chatting with people sitting on their porches along the way. 

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Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia

Ebenezer Baptist, the original church where MLK — and his father before him — preached.

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Ebenezer Baptist Church neon sign in Atlanta Georgia

I love old neon signs. This one is pure and simple — don’t need more for a church!

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A block down from the church is the museum and the newer Ebenezer Baptist. The museum is well done with artifacts and timelines. It’s amazing how much impact MLK had at such a young age.

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Martin Luther King Junior National Historical Park sign

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Mtuseni was engrossed in the civil rights history exhibits. He has a unique perspective with South Africa’s experience of apartheid — there are similarities and differences in both situations. Yet there’s still so much work to be done in South Africa. I’ve come to realize through my years with Mtuseni how deep the scars of apartheid run. 

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timeline

bbMartin Luther King Jr speaking at the March on Washington in 1963

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Wagon that carried Martin Luther King Junior's coffin.

The wagon that carried MLK’s coffin during services.

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Tomb of Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, Georgia

The tomb of Martin and Coretta is in a long reflecting pool painted bright blue. It’s garish and distracting; a quieter, neutral color would be more fitting and respectful.

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The contemporary Ebenezer Church was closed for services. Looking through the photos of this day recently, I saw that Mtuseni had taken photos inside the church. I asked how he was able to do that — and when. He said that he went inside after the service ended, and I was probably looking for a bathroom. Haha… that sounds about right!

After the museum we headed back to my friend’s house to just hang and eat takeout. It was nice to relax and avoid hotels (and those damn waffle machines!) We were recharged and ready for the next stage of our swing through the South…. music and history!

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