Every April, many of us take time to reflect and make new commitments as well as strengthen our resolve to act in our city on the hard lessons of 1968.
It seems like heresy to say we may be looking in the wrong direction when we focus our attention on the balcony of what was once the Lorraine Motel.
The real life drama in our city that ended on that balcony with the death of the most visible reminder of how to change the course of events without waging war should not be forgotten.
But neither should the concept of making the larger goals within that drama relevant to today’s world and specifically to those who weren’t alive in 1968.
Sometimes, the story of 1968 and our insistence that it never be forgotten and continually retold as an article of faith obscures the larger context of a struggle and a discussion that continues.
The National Civil Rights Museum was never conceived as just a memorial to a moment on April 4, 1968. It was meant to tell a broader story and take that story into the present.
The renovation of the museum furthers that necessary goal and meets the difficult challenge of helping us to see in today’s events the global reach the philosophy and tactics of the 1950s and 1960s have had.
The museum’s renovation also removes the movement of those years from its isolation and puts it in the context of earlier events starting with slavery – an evil that we still battle today.
When Dr. Earnestine Jenkins of the University of Memphis talks about a movement of “everyday people,” she shows us where our attention should be after we pause to take in the dramatic moment when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in our city for his convictions and his leadership.
The reason he is still mourned today is because those beliefs were the hopes and faith and determination of untold millions whose struggle began before we were a nation. The struggle as well as our aspirations as framed in that movement reach beyond the borders of our country today.
The image associated with King remains the dream he spoke of in 1963. Just five years later on the streets of this city that dream must have seemed like a nightmare. His tactics and commitment were questioned by one-time allies. And his adversaries pressed closer to listen for any advantage to be had in his personal suffering and doubt, exploiting both.
King’s struggle was not a dream then, just as it is not a dream now. He was not a man with his head in the clouds. He was a man in the middle of a very real tempest with deliberate thoughts about the uneasy way forward.
Whether we realize it or not, the way forward has remained our mission since he fell on that balcony.