A Day of Ghosts, A Day of Kings

8 02 2011

My first time in Memphis. Southaven, Mississippi, really. But close enough, just over the state line; you fly into Memphis. Usually on these work trips I never get to see or experience anything that brings the place renown, anything touristy. Hence my over-elation (perhaps) at the smell of barbecue right off the jetway. Who knows? This may be the most culturally significant experience of the entire trip.

At baggage claim, where I rendezvous with the rest of the crew, the director informs me that our services will not be required until late afternoon the following day, and that in the morning we will be taking a field trip into downtown Memphis (my heart leaped) to the world famous Sun Studios (out of my throat and across the lobby). And if there is time, we’ll go to Graceland or the Civil Rights Museum. All gravy, as far as I am concerned, some real Southern-fried sightseeing.

Walking into the one room studio at Sun, you think you’re going to be prepared. How mind blowing could it be, such a simple room? Well, I think that’s exactly how they must want you to feel…because all the history begins to flow through your mind (Karl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, U2, oh, and that Elvis guy. What’s his name?) There’s even a picture of the Million Dollar Quartet on the wall. The wall itself looks identical today.

But that’s nothing compared to when they play you the music. You look around, hear the music soar through the room, and you know there are ghosts in there with you. The feeling is undeniable. There’s the microphone that captured all the voices for decades, right next to an ‘X’ on the floor where Elvis stood when he first auditioned for Sam Phillips. He wasn’t quite The King yet; that would take another, oh, couple weeks! You feel it in your gut, all the history and mystique wringing out all your adrenaline.

I take a picture with the microphone…and buy a t-shirt.

After that, and a few miles down the road, we go to the National Civil Rights Museum. Quite a timely visit, February being Black History Month. The whole turn of events is becoming more serendipitous by the second, given my meeting Myrlie Evers last week. We pull into the parking lot, and begin walking towards the complex, something seems very familiar, and I begin to experience a feeling similar to that I felt at Sun; my adrenaline was charging and the place had a certain spirit. But the spirit here takes on a somber tone, a funeral hymn. I find myself standing in front of the Lorraine Motel: the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

To call these hallowed grounds would be inadequate, like calling the Himalayas “hills”. Nothing prepared me to see the place where King fell, the newer square of concrete poured to replace the blood-stained piece that he left, the beautiful gospel music playing in the shrine. This wasn’t simply a feeling of ghosts, but of a much greater tide of spirit, much more emotional. The combined sorrow of an entire people, past and present.

It’s an emotion that’s hard to describe. This place, so wrought with sorrow at the loss of leader, a huge blow atop a mountain of centuries of pain and injustice. You feel something greater than yourself, you feel that weight. The gospel music comes through the speakers, the water wells up in your eyes, you can’t help it.

It’s quite a way to experience Memphis, or any other city, with one site so celebratory and one more contemplative. It’s a collective experience not shared by many other cities I have been to, at least not on that level. Though every town must have its legends and fallen heroes, accomplishments that deserve to be remembered and respected, gifts and deeds that changed lives, maybe not on a global scale like those of Kings, but at least on a local one, where you can interact directly and frequently with those leaders, any one who sacrifices time and even their lives to share with others, to lift them up, to make the world a better place for everyone.

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