The Museums of Memphis

Wow guys, daily blogging is hard when you have 12 hour days. Still back logged on topics to talk about, and I promise I will get to them, even if some of them I won’t get to discuss for a few weeks. For now, let’s talk museums.

Our workshop ends today, and yesterday we took the two hour trip up to Memphis to explore the history of what became the central hub of the Mississippi Delta, and many Delta citizens’ first stop on their way out of the poverty and violence of the Delta in the 1930s and 40s. Many stayed, and many more moved further north to St. Louis and Kansas City, or further still to Chicago and Detroit. There’s a lot of history, and a lot of music, which I’ll hopefully explore later this month. We went to the Cotton Museum, the Stax Museum, and the National Civil Rights Museum. The Cotton Museum was interesting, but seemed to have been wiped pretty clean. Minimal discussion of slavery or sharecropping, lots of talk about blues and the social elements of Memphis. It was a very light  museum, though interesting technically. Shouldn’t be forgotten that Monsanto was sponsoring the museum. So there is a corporate interest behind the museum, and they probably have little interest in really laying bare the corrupt roots of their industry. Still it was cool to see the model cotton exchange and they had a great exhibit on Memphis blues.

The Stax Museum was also really magnificent. We had to race through it but there were lots of great costume pieces, old records, and other memorabilia. And I got a couple great CDs that I’m excited to dig through, including a JSP Records compilation of post-war Memphis blues.

Stax pretty much tells the story as it happened, albeit while protecting the reps of some of its musicians. For Sam & Dave it never mentions  their mutual hatred or Dave’s drug addiction. But then that’s not the point of the museum. This is not a Behind the Music episode The point is to illustrate that Stax was a unique oasis of racial harmony in a city and country that was awash in segregation up through the late ‘60s. And then to show that they leaped into the Black Power movement with relish with the Wattstax concert. The dividing line in the label’s history is marked as MLK’s assassination, which stoked racial divisions in the city and turned Stax into a distinctly black record label in the mind of the public. Stax, in turn, cultivated that image with its connection to Shaft through Isaac Hayes and the Civil Rights Movement through the Staple Singers. That was their mission and it worked. It’s a feel good museum and I’m cool with it being that.

There’s so much to say about the Stax Museum and the sheer greatness of Stax Records, and hopefully I’ll find time to talk about some of their music later. I’m listening to Sam & Dave’s album I Thank You as I write this, and I just can’t get over how raw and powerful these guys were compared to every soul singer out there, even as this album picked up a little polish, a few more overdubs, and a few more strings. This type of music had such unrestrained power of the kind that friendly rival Motown just could not pull together, though it occasionally came close. I have some wonderful pictures in the gallery below

Now the National Civil Rights Museum was a place I took more time critically analyzing. It’s a great museum, but I found it lacking in a few places.

Let’s get this out of the way. Everyone should go to the National Civil Rights Museum and ideally, spend a good three hours wandering through there with an audio tour. Because the experience is quite harrowing. The tales of heroism of the Civil Rights Movement were so harrowing that the place just washes over you. And the history of the museum is extraordinarily thorough, beginning with the early abolitionist movement and running through every major event of the movement in great detail. They recreated the bus where Rosa Parks refused to get up and the lunch counters where college students refused to move. The primary documents they provide with each of the major marches from the Birmingham March on through the March against Fear in Mississippi are extensive. That’s all very well done.

Now museums tell us a lot not just about history but how we view history and what we value in history. So with that in mind there are a couple things that I want to point out that are problematic in this museum.

1.)   While the museum does a great job of addressing MLK’s anti-poverty campaign (though could go further in stressing how controversial this was at the time), it barely mentions (briefly mentioning in one video and providing no exhibit) his strident opposition to the Vietnam War. And King did not mince words, explicitly linking our funding of the Vietnam War to our country’s failure to support its poor at home and using that argument to claim that America was approaching “spiritual death.” King delivered his first and most famous anti-war speech at Riverside Church in Harlem in 1967, and it quickly made him a toxic figure in the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Mainstream leaders in the NAACP kept their distance, the New York Times condemned him, and President Lyndon B. Johnson was privately furious with him for what he felt was a betrayal. This was also, by the way, before public opinion really turned against the war, so middle America was turned off by him as well. Opposing the war was an incredibly risky move for King to make, and an essential part of his whole anti-poverty argument. Now while I suppose you could argue that his war opposition technically does not count as civil rights, I don’t think that argument holds water. As stated, he linked it explicitly to his anti-poverty campaign, which is covered extensively in the museum.

This tells us a lot about how we view anti-war movements. They are quite simply too hot to handle. We can deal with someone wanting to fight against poverty, but we can’t deal with someone wanting to fight against war. That’s simply too controversial of an idea. And perhaps that’s not surprising, since war is accepted as a basic tool of foreign policy by both political parties now. We have ongoing military combat going on now in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, with a large military presence in multiple European, Middle Eastern, and African nations, not to mention tons of covert wars. To bring the good doctor in great detail—like I said he is there but you have to pay close attention—might be too much to bare.

2.)  The other thought that came to mind had to do with Rosa Parks, and what bothered me here was that the museum still seems to stick to the classic version of Rosa Parks: she was a tired woman who was just sick of being told to go to the back of the bus. But Rosa Parks was also a student of the Highlander Folk School, a school that trained people in union activism and protest organizing. Parks didn’t just do this randomly. She planned it, and prepped for the police response. If you don’t think that it requires serious training to say “No” when someone is telling you to do something, then Stanley Milgram has an experiment he’d like you to take part in.

This is not minor by the way. Think of how it changes the story if we found out that Rosa Parks had planned this event out and coordinated with other leaders in town to make this happen. Suddenly Rosa Parks is not a helpless, frustrated victim, but a strategist who thinks through actions carefully. Her story remains a hero’s story, but one that promotes different values than the one of spontaneous frustration. And to me, it makes her all the more heroic. Frustrated outbursts are easy to make, but to have made that decision not to move fully aware of what might happen to her, to not only think that action through but resist the voice of caution telling you you should get up and walk to the back of the bus? That takes true courage, and I wish our museums would cover that.

Now these are two big issues I like to talk about, but they do not take away significantly from a quality experience. And like I said, you should go. Sign the guestbook and let them know what you think of the place, especially if your thoughts are the same as mine.

One last thought, though. I think the museum is a fitting monument to King’s legacy, and an important educational tool and archive. But there’s more to this tale. In order to build the museum, a woman named Jacqueline Smith was evicted from the Lorraine Hotel where the museum is now located, the same place that Dr. King was shot in 1968. Since then, she has been protesting outside the museum, arguing that the place needs to be used instead for public low-income housing, something that is seriously needed in a poverty-stricken city like Memphis. That has yet to happen, and so on she protests. For, as of yesterday, 24 years and 90 days. She updates the sign everyday.

There are lots of hard questions at stake here. On the one hand, this is a terrific educational resources and one which has brought tourists and economic activity to Memhpis. But would King have wanted this testament to himself? I certainly doubt it, and the fact that this building has slipped out of the hands of working people of Memphis shows the risks of such economic development for the sake of tourism. Tourism is an industry that promotes massive wealth inequities from what I’ve seen. If you visit New Orleans or Las Vegas, you see immense poverty within the service industry that has built up around tourist destinations, be they historic sites, clubs, or casinos. The neighborhoods around tourist sites certainly improve considerably, as has happened in Memphis, but that doesn’t mean poverty is decreasing. Sometimes it does, but it sometimes means that poverty is just being moved to neighborhoods far from view. It also can’t be forgotten that this is business meant for people outside the community, and that’s sad.

I went in the museum, because at the end of the day, I do see value in these sorts of educational institution. But if you go to Memphis, visit this protester and talk to her. Because while it’s good to visit the past, it’s no good to live in it as if it doesn’t apply to the world we live in now. If you want more discussion of this topic, here’s another blog from someone who met this woman two years ago

I don’t have pictures yet for the National Civil Rights Museum, because I did not bring my camera. I did take a few pics from my phone as soon as I figure out a way to quickly get the pictures into my gosh darn computering machine, I will update this post. For now enjoy pics from the other museums, and check out the speech the museum did not show: MLK’s protest of the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church.

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