Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

A Visit to the Lorraine (May-Jun 1998)

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by Gary Selby
May – June, 1998

“God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Roman 15:7).

I was nine years old when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. For some reason, I remember the moment clearly. I was watching television in the family room of our house when the words “SPECIAL REPORT” flashed on the TV screen in bright red letters and a voice announced that Dr. King had been shot. I vaguely remember the talk of “those awful riots,”as the adults around me called them, which immediately erupted in Washington, D.C. I remember that a friend of my family, a white policeman, was shot and wounded in the riots. I remember a few years later the tensions in our predominately white schools over the issue of busing. But mostly, I was insulated from the struggles of Black Americans for civil rights. I grew up in a comfortable house in the all-white suburbs of Washington. What I did hear of the Civil Rights Movement was filtered through the perspective of white middle-class America, fearfully guarding its position of economic and social privilege.

As a student and a young adult, I listened to the stories of close friends who were black. I watched with rapt attention as documentaries like”Eyes on the Prize”chronicled the struggle. I studied Martin Luther King’s speeches in an academic setting. But I had no real sense of what black Americans faced in their quest for civil rights. Indeed, nothing prepared me for what I would find when I visited the Lorraine Motel.

My family and I were in Memphis for other reasons, and we found ourselves with an extra day on our hands. As we thought about the sightseeing possibilities, I remembered that a friend had mentioned seeing the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the renovated Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. I thought it might be an interesting thing to do. I am ashamed to say that I questioned my choice when we drove through the city and realized what part of town the museum was in. All the more reason to go, I now realize.

From the moment I left my car and entered the courtyard, just below the famous balcony where Dr. King was shot, I found myself in the grip of this powerful place. The National Civil Rights Museum chronicles history, of course-events, names, places, dates. But much more, it creates experience and evokes emotion more powerfully than any monument or museum I have ever seen. It invites those who, like me, were insulated from the Civil Rights Movement, to put ourselves-if even for a moment-in the place of those for whom the struggle was a matter of life and death.

At points in my tour, I felt strangely out of place – as if I had stumbled in on the funeral of someone I didn’t know. I remember squeezing in to see the museum’s climactic exhibit amid a throng of black visitors, in town for a religious convention. As we gazed on the rooms where Dr. King and his friends stayed and on the balcony where he was standing when those shots rang out, we heard someone say, “Right there’s where he was standing.” A hush fell over the crowded room. I felt like an intruder, like I had no right to be there. It was a holy place, sacred to the memory of pain and struggle. But for someone who grew up in comfortable, white, middle-class America, the pain and struggle had not been mine.

Those feelings, however, were more often overpowered by a sense of outrage as exhibit after exhibit carried me back to those events. The faces of protesters, some angry and defiant, many sad or afraid. Photographs of lynch-mob victims. Movie footage of angry whites shouting, “Niggers go home,” of fire hoses and attack dogs. A recreation of Rosa Parks’ famous bus. I sat there on that bus and listened as the mannequin driver stared my way and barked out his order,”Get up!” The lunch counter scene, powerfully recreated, with movie footage in the background showing the abuse and humiliation heaped upon those four young men and womenjust because they were black. And maybe for the first time in my life, I glimpsed the horror of racism. The very idea that these Americans should have had to struggle for what was rightfully theirs. That anyone should ever treat another person this way, because of the color of his skin or for any other reason.

But mostly, I felt deep shame. Shame for what these people felt. Shame for the humiliation and abuse they endured. Shame at being a member of a system – no, a beneficiary of a system – which brought such misery upon so many people. I thought about the ways that I have participated, knowingly and unknowingly, in this oppression. I though of pronouncements I have made about matters which I didn’t really understand. Jokes I have told or laughed at. Conclusions I have reached about others because of their appearance. Being there forced me to admit how quickly I still judge a man”by the color of his skin rather then the character of his heart.” I remembered my own reluctance to get out of the car when I realized what section of town the Lorraine was ina section mostly poor and black. I who have so wanted to be seen as somehow above all of that. The museum forced me to see that the issue for me-maybe for all or us-is not,”Am I prejudiced?” The question is simply,”In what ways?”

But as I left the Lorraine, I also felt strangely hopeful. After all, by whatever quirk or coincidence or moving of the Holy Spirit, I was there. I had seen this place, felt these emotions, shared in some small way in the pain of these, my fellow human beings. And I knew that what I had experienced at the Lorraine Motel was now a part of me, and that I would never be able to look at another person-especially a person different from me-in quite the same way. I would never be able to write off another person quite as easily as before. I was hopeful because my young sons also saw the Lorraine-mv oldest just a year from the age I was when the news of Dr. King’s death interrupted rev tele\ iSion show. As we were 1eavrig I asked him what he thought. He looked at me with sadness, almost unable to believe wiia he had seen. “Why did they do that, Dad? Just because their skiii was different?”

The tensions and harriers that divide us from one a v )tlrer are formidable. The problems of crime, economic injustice, health care, and poverty that plague our nation seem overwhelming. Our efforts to stem the tide, even on a small scale, can seem fruitlessmuch less our aspirations of turning around an entire nation. Indeed, I wonder if I will ever be free of the prejudice that lives in my own heart.

And yet, I found what was, for me at least, a place to start that afternoon in Memphis. I was forced to put myself in the place of those toward whom I had been conditioned to react with hostility and suspicion. For once, I glimpsed what it meant to listen to another person’s story without defending myself. And I wondered, what would happen if we could do that in our churches? If I could say to those who are different from me, “Please, tell me your story. What has it been like for you?” If I could say to my brothers and sisters who are black, “What is it like for you to be a part of this church?” And then to listen. Really listen.

That day in Memphis, I was forced to ask myself, “What would it have been like if I had been there?” And I will never be the same.Wineskins Magazine

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