MLK 50

Posted: April 5, 2018 in Civil Rights, IOinMemphis2018, MLK 50, Travel

Lorraine Motel, MLK 50

Today, 4th April 2018 marks 50 years since Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Lorraine Motel has now been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum and tracks the history of African-Americans from the 1800s when they were brought into the US as slaves, through the period of reconstruction, racial segregation and Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, Civil Rights Act of 1964 and culminates in Room 306 where Dr King was assassinated in 1968.

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to visit Memphis about a week ago and spend close to 5  hours in the museum. I plan on writing a series of 2-3 posts covering various aspects of the trip; the visit to the museum was a revelatory experience in itself,  I have therefore devoted an entire post to it.

On entering the museum, the first thing one would notice is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and the wall beside the stIMG_20180330_125719.jpgatue that has the famous quote by Gandhi, ” Be the change you want to see in the world”. It is widely known that Mahatma Gandhi’s methods of non-violence deeply influenced Dr King and led him to use similar ideas during the Civil Rights Movement.  Dr King embarked on a trip to India in 1959 after the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956), considered as the first large-scale non-violent demonstrations against racial segregation. He said, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation”, in his address for All India Radio on his last evening in India.

The museum begins with slave trade that transported millions of Africans to the US under the most inhuman conditions. Here is a photo that shows an advertisement for a slave and brings out (arguably) the worst way to treat a fellow human being. At this point, I was reminded of my visit to the cellular jail in Port Blair where Indians were deported as forced labours in inhuman conditions, often starved and deprived of most basic needs by the Britishers. Throughout the time I spent at the museum, I would be reminded of several incidents from the Nationalist movements for freedom in India.

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Following the Civil War of 1864, when the Confederacy was defeated and the African Americans gained freedom and representation in public platforms, there was a brief period of reconstruction. However, with the enactment of the infamous Jim Crow laws (equal but separate), the Blacks were systematically segregated from the white supremacists in all walks of life. From here on, various movements leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 took place that eliminated segregation and secured African Americans equal rights. The first of these was the Montgomery Bus Boycott that led to the enactment of Browder v Gayle and ruled the segregation of seats on the bus as unconstitutional.

This incident brought Dr King to light as he was elected to lead the boycott. Student sit-ins were organised at various places where African-American students sat down at counters meant only for whites in restaurants and bars. Freedom riders were a group of people that protested the segregation of seats on inter-state buses in the southern USA. The results of these struggles forced the American government to take notice. Of particular importance is the intervention of President Kennedy and his (somewhat weak but nevertheless important) commitment to reforms. This, I felt, was very much in the same vein as the response to the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi. The civil disobedience movements established Mahatma Gandhi as a force that the British were forced to acknowledge. A large part of the reason for the intervention of President Kennedy seems to be the image of the United States that had taken a severe beating at the global level. We must not forget that this is about the same time that several African countries were gaining independence from colonisers and the US was keen to have them on their side with their idea of new-world and to prevent Russia from befriending them. A change in the political situation in different parts of the globe forced the US government to come out in support (although slowly) of the civil rights movements.

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Dr King was arrested in 1963 and from Birmingham jail wrote the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” requesting patience with the process of lawfully overturning segregation. I recollected reading that Mahatma Gandhi also wrote a number of letters while he was in jail to lift the spirits of the people involved in the freedom struggle, to British officials and to inmates of Sabarmati ashram and some of them are said to be witty and filled with humour. Following his release, Dr King organised a huge march in Washington D.C where more than 200,000 people participated for equality in jobs and delivered the speech, ‘I have a dream’. Both the march and the speech had a huge impact.  This speech, although aimed at fellow Americans would go onto to start a worldwide movement against racial discrimination. This also brought the US to the brink of overcoming an era of racial segregation and discrimination just as the Quit India speech that Mahatma Gandhi gave in 1942.  Emboldened by the success, a voter registration drive for African Americans was organised in the summer of 1964. President Johnson rode on the rising discontent and the anger among the Americans and finally enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination and segregation in all public places.  Dr King was awarded the Nobel prize the same year.

However, just as Mahatma Gandhi did not stop his activities with India’s independence, Dr King too continued to struggle for the rights and equality of people. One such movement was the Memphis sanitation strike that demanded better wages, pension and employment security for the sanitation workers of the city (who were mostly African Americans). On learning about their movement, Dr King offered his full support and delivered his speech ‘ The Mountaintop speech’ on April 3rd, 1968. Little did the world know that this was his last speech. He was assassinated the next day while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel.  The tour of the museum concluded at this place and left almost everyone with intense emotions.

His death further intensified the sanitation strike and the mayor of Memphis conceded to their demands (except the demand for pension, which they are not allowed even today).

A lovely after movie depicts the struggle that the African American communities face even today. Memphis still battles several of these challenges such as socio-economic equality, access to quality education and resources. Yet, during my week-long stay in Memphis, I realised that this amazing city is also a perfect example of what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said: ” Be the change you want to see in the world”. The city is home to several voluntary organisations that focus on improving the quality of lives in their respective communities in whatever way they can: justice, education, cleaning drives, restoration of buildings and so many more.

This brings me to the end of this post and also sets up my next post where I will be writing about various facets that injustice can take and the way it has impacted the lives of African Americans even after 5 decades since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As was the case with this post, I will also include and share the similarities that I noticed between India and the US in this regard.

I hope you enjoyed reading!

 

Feature Image of Lorraine Motel courtesy: Emlyn Torres, one of our two awesome group leaders from Northwestern University International Office.

All recollection and comparison to the Indian Independence movement are from whatever little I remember from history lessons in school and due to travelling to places such as Port Blair in India.

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