MEMPHIS, Tenn. — “It’s OK if you cry.”
That was the text message relayed by Andscape’s Marc Spears moments before I took the pilgrimage this week to the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the site of the Lorraine Hotel — the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
“You’ll feel something real eerie when you go on that balcony,” — words from a conversation I had recently with one of my best friends since I was 9, my guy Chauncey, a man who isn't the most emotional or sentimental.
So, I was on guard for everything I could prepare for and many things I couldn’t. The NBA curates a lot of programming around the MLK Day holiday, the third Monday in January, with games, panels and symposiums at various spots across the league’s map.
Taking a tour for the first time, you expect the gamut of emotions. The pride, the awe and sadness.
What one doesn’t foresee — at least I didn’t — was the searing anger.
I found out later it’s not an uncommon feeling.
“When you go, you have to, at least in my opinion, you have to divide it up a bit emotionally,” Suns coach Monty Williams said Monday afternoon as Phoenix played the Memphis Grizzlies during the league’s slate of MLK Day games, “so you don’t take some of the pain and the sadness away from that place because it can mess with your present life.
“I tend to have to slow down when I leave, because it does anger me.”
The Grizzlies and the NBA did multiple panels and symposiums over the course of two days, honoring figures who’ve made a difference in their communities — like Hall of Famer Gary Payton — while spearheading racial discussions about such topics as confederate symbols on college campuses still erected to this day.
Among folks on the tour: Hall of Famer Grant Hill, who’d been on it numerous times as an analyst for Turner Sports; Hall of Fame player and coach Nancy Lieberman, who was being honored with a National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award for her work in helping refurbish basketball courts across the country, including a site in Memphis; and Eddie George (also honored with a legacy award), current Tennessee State head football coach and former NFL running back with the Tennessee Titans, along with his wife, Taj, a member of the legendary ’90s R&B group SWV.
The tone was set from the tour and continued over the next two days.
The emotions were striking across the board, a shared experience among many of us who were strangers until that day.
Ryan Jones, associate curator, also served as our tour guide. He explained each section without missing a beat, giving quotes and anecdotes effortlessly taking the group from each detail to the next.
Black history certainly doesn’t start with slavery, but for the purposes of this exhibit, it begins with the middle passage and goes through the Civil War and then the Plessy v. Ferguson days, when “separate but equal” was the law of the land: segregation as we know it.
Jones leads the group to another room, introducing Thurgood Marshall and the Brown v. Board of Education landmark ruling from the Supreme Court in 1954 that ruled segregation unconstitutional.
In the room, there was the notable Black-doll, white-doll test, where children were asked which doll was smarter, prettier — given to children of multiple ethnicities.
Back then, the ratio was 90-10 with the white doll being viewed more favorably. The test had been done multiple times, and according to Jones when queried by Hill and myself, done as recently as around a decade ago.
Jones’ answer: “90-10, in favor of the white doll.”
In the history books, the civil rights movement is often lumped together in a neat, tidy paragraph — even if years went by between one event and the next. It’s hard to conceptualize time when it’s being discussed and taught that way.
The beauty in the museum is breaking it down. Separate events in different segments of the country, even though the South was a key battleground. But the South is often talked about as a pejorative, like everything happened on a street corner in Atlanta or the birthplace of my paternal grandparents, Mobile, Alabama.
I sat on a bus that was a replica of the one Rosa Parks sat on and refused to give up her seat in 1955, the event that birthed the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 380 days. A video played in the adjoining room of students who were going to integrate lunch counters in the South. It showed “friendlies” testing them for what they were to endure the next day, being pushed and pressed — a simulation of sorts — to see if they could handle the rough treatment without responding to the tactics.
It was a test of endurance, those two events, and it feels lost in the traditional retelling. It wasn’t just the pushing, the prodding and the searching.
Not that those moments in the civil rights movement are glamorous, but there are even more anonymous instances. Just regular people doing extraordinary things, completely unaware where the finish line was, or if it was even attainable.
The history books make it seem so far away, but so many of our parents were alive for this, even if they have only a fleeting memory of certain events.
If you were in grade school in 1995, those memories probably don’t feel that long ago — even though it is now approaching 30 years prior. Whereas, 30 years before 1995, Malcolm X’s death in 1965 feels as far as biblical times, with context of time hard to find.
That’s the beauty and the frustration of how the movement has been framed, and the museum fills in the gaps, with no stone left unturned.
It’s easy to weave these individual events together to form the movement, and make no mistake, so much of this was coordinated. The movement found ways to use the media, athletes and entertainers to push forward — the micro creating the macro.
And what the museum does an excellent job of is conveying the danger these people were in. It uses audio to augment the visuals: The crack of a whip hitting a slave in one room, the flames of a bombed bus in another, the sounds of an angry mob attacking Black people on the streets, and sometimes, the joyful, hopeful sounds of protestors and churchgoers singing hymns.
The murders, the bus bombings, the dogs being sicced on peaceful protestors — lives were legitimately in danger, and it wasn’t just a threat, lives were claimed by those who felt they had agency over them: King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and so many others.
It was a war as much as a movement, the museum displayed. And it was met with war-like resistance.
King and others had the state, the Ku Klux Klan and just plain-old angry white folks ready to halt things. The endurance of the movement was matched only by the hateful energy of those who wanted the status quo to remain so, to keep Black folks under the boot of society.
So when King has been turned into almost a Babe Ruth-like figure, almost in a cartoonish way that sanitizes his radicalism and, honestly, his demands America live up to its promises, it feels squeamish.
It’s why I asked NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum about the league leaning into the King holiday so heavily, when one considers the bad actors who post quotes about King but behave hypocritically.
“In our core, our game is inclusive. And I do think that the game itself has this unique ability, really, to bring diverse people of diverse backgrounds together,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports last week.
“You can find people who would disagree on anything, but how we view our role is to try to create a platform in a discussion amongst people who do have different points of views, because that’s the only way I think we’re going to be able to make progress and to come to some understanding.
“And that’s not always easy, there’s no doubt about that. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t, again, talk about what Dr. King stood for and the values that he stood for.”
It’s a presidential answer, but at least an acknowledgment it has to be both clear and walk a fine line so the league’s best efforts won’t be co-opted. And being a corporate brand means the league can embrace King but only so much, because he was radical and the battles he was fighting back then are still being fought today — on corporate grounds and in common areas.
Like his final trip to Memphis.
The back of your neck gets hot when the dates start heading toward that tragic day of April 4. The story is well-known enough, but the context is critical. At that point, King was focused on sanitation workers in Memphis getting better pay and all-around fair treatment. The night before, aides traveling with him — one being Rev. Jesse Jackson — planned to speak in his stead because King wasn’t feeling great.
Let that sink in.
He battled a fever, or fatigue. As much as he was an ideal and extraordinary, he was a man of flesh and blood, like all of us.
Better than us, but like all of us.
He bled, he battled doubts and fears. King even suffered from depression at a point — his heart and mind weary from fighting a battle that, in some ways, seemed further from the day all of this started.
That night, when rough weather wouldn’t keep the crowd away, King emerged and delivered his last speech, the one commonly referred to by its clairvoyance in his speaking of the mountaintop he wouldn’t get to see.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place,” King said that night. “But I’m not concerned about that now.”
It was clear, even if he knew martyrdom was his destiny, he wasn’t trying to do so hastily. He deserved to live, as much as any sacrificed life in the name of progress — a title nobody truly volunteers for.
That’s where the blood starts boiling as Jones directs the group around the corner because he’s done discussing April 3.
Then, you see it, almost a hue of orange but it’s certainly a glow.
The hotel room where King spent his last nights. It’s been preserved for the most part, kept behind glass, the space he shared with Ralph Abernathy.
From there, Jones directs the group to the balcony and you immediately feel hesitant.
Hill nudged me to go, “You should see this,” and stayed behind.
You hear Jones weave through the words King had with his aides as they called him “Doc” and asked if he would need a coat, while they waited on the driver to arrive.
And in that very moment, a breeze comes across the balcony — I could feel it, and felt that feeling in the way my friend warned me. It wasn’t a warm night, but it was still until that second.
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord.’ Play it real pretty,’ ” King said to saxophonist Ben Branch, who was in Memphis to play at an upcoming rally and was the last person King spoke with before he was shot.
Jones then points in the direction of the assassin’s bullet across the street, striking King once — fatally.
It’s said grown men have wept during the tour, and at that moment in particular. It’s easy to understand why, considering how the tour is conducted with feeling and texture, it takes one back in time even if not alive that fateful day.
It was anger for me.
Cities burned in the aftermath of King’s assassination, tear-stained frustration and anger as Black folks felt the state was complicit, if not a co-conspirator, in the event.
The tour ends there, and you feel exhausted while feeling a level of pride for every gain fought for and every moment so many people put their lives on the line in the hope for a better life they’d probably never see.
Memphis wasn’t the home of King, but it played a critical part in his story, even if it’s ugly.
It has taken responsibility as a whole, and to this date, hasn’t run from it. The museum is a shrine to it and yes, a nod to the tragedy that occurred on its ground.
Seems appropriate for some to take that lesson of acknowledgement and follow suit.
As I walked out and again felt that breeze, the anger comes and goes, comes and goes with each breath.
It’ll never go away, but neither will the pride.