Tag Archives: Memphis

Jim Crow, Old and New

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

If you don’t learn something about yourself when you travel … well, that’s okay—I’m not going to sermonize—but I was pleased to learn something important about myself in Memphis.

In the morning, Lynn and I took a walk along the riverfront, which is beautiful:


We walked back to Beale Street, found a restaurant, and ordered breakfast. We were excited to try southern foods like grits and biscuits.  We waited, and waited.  You could say this restaurant put the “wait” in waitress.  She kept coming by and giving us a dose of another southern treat—calling us “honey”, “sweetie”, and “darlin’” as in: “Your food’ll be up in just a minute, darlins’”

It seemed like half the morning passed away before we got our meals, then we wolfed them down and headed over to the National Civil Rights Museum.

It was difficult to find—there was no signage—but then we turned a corner and there it was, the former Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  I recognized it immediately, having seen it a hundred times in iconic photos.

TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES - APRIL 04:  Civil rights leader Andrew Young (L) and others standing on balcony of Lorraine motel pointing in direction of assailant after assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is lying at their feet.  (Photo by Joseph Louw/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

And this was the beginning of learning something about myself, because I got so choked up I had to turn away so no one would see me in tears.

I have been to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC; Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, and they’ve been tear-filled experiences too.  But then, I’m Jewish.  Were my tears only because the story was about my people?  That fear—that I only felt empathy for my own kind—was laid to rest in Memphis.

Can a Man

I wiped my tears away but they welled up continually inside the museum, which was one long, sad horror show that traced the abuse of African Americans from slave days up through the assassination in 1968.

There was a large group of school children, mostly African American, going through with docents.  I wondered what they felt seeing Africans in chains, the police dogs, the fire hoses?  If it was my kid I would want to be on the tour to put my arm around him.  There was the usual laughing and fooling around that any group of kids will exhibit, but I wondered if they would have trouble sleeping that night.

I commented to Lynn, “A coworker of mine at Oxfam used to find every opportunity to mention, ‘the UK never had slavery’ in a superior tone.”

“We may not have had slaves in the country, but we certainly benefited and participated in the system,” Lynn replied as we read a display about how global the slave trade was.

And of course it didn’t end with the abolition of slavery.  “Jim Crow” was the system in the southern United States from reconstruction up through the civil rights era in the 60s that kept “negros” in their place.  Here are a few of the ridiculous laws from that time:

Baseball Law Mulattos Checkers

Really?  Checkers!?  Who knew checkers could subvert the social order?

Then we marched slowly through exhibits about bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, and strikes.  Then there were the cross burnings, lynchings, and bombings by white racists; somewhat counterbalanced by the support of white and other allies (including Jews).

Lunch Counter I am a Man Bus Boycott Activists

I watched a video about James Meredith, the first black student to be accepted to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford Mississippi.  Of course he hadn’t mentioned his race in his application, and when he showed up to enroll all hell broke loose.  After weeks of rioting by whites, which resulted in two deaths, he was reluctantly let in, and as Lynn read later, he did graduate and lived a normal life afterwards.

The museum was really well done.  There was a second building that explored African American activism post 1968, but after three or four hours in the first building we had to leave.

Last week Vince and I talked to a group about mass incarceration.  One of the audience members referred to it as the New Jim Crow.  I agree, although in my opinion it’s about poverty, addiction, mental health, and class as much as racism.

Viva, Viagra!

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip from St. Paul to New Orleans that starts here.

After recharging with burritos and bucket-sized ice teas, Lynn and I hit the road for the last leg of the drive from Chicago to Memphis.

We wanted to drive through Paducah, Kentucky.  We liked the name.  It would have been our homage to David, our innkeeper in Chicago, and we could have added a fifth state to our route that day.  But even with a GPS and a map we couldn’t figure out how to get to it.  For what seemed like hours—because it was hours—it looked like we were on the verge of crossing the state line into Tennessee and that Memphis would be right on the other side.

“There’s the sign!” said Lynn.  “Tennessee—The Volunteer State?”  Whatever does that mean?”

“I don’t know.  Something to do with the Civil War?”

I tried to find out later why Tennessee is called the Volunteer State lost interest after 3,000 words about the conflicting stories about which war originated it.  Suffice it to say it was some war with England or Mexico or the northern United States.

All 50 states have mottos.  We had passed through five states so far.  The slogans of Minnesota and Illinois are straightforward: Land of 10,000 Lakes and Land of Lincoln (Abe Lincoln was born in Illinois).  Arkansas’, through which we had passed briefly, was Regnat Populus, which means “The People Rule.”

Missouri’s slogan is the strangest—it’s The Show Me State.  The official explanation is that in 1899 a Missouri Congressman said:

“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

I liked it better when I thought it might have something to do with voyeurism.

We checked in to the Holiday Inn in downtown Memphis, which I had chosen because it was two blocks from Beale Street and had $22 overnight parking.  I checked the odometer—we’d driven 995 miles since leaving St. Paul.

Within 15 minutes we were out on Beale Street, which is supposedly where rock and roll was created.  Or the blues, I can’t remember.  Because Chicago also calls itself the Home of the Blues, and of course New Orleans’ claim to fame is jazz … so it’s hard to keep it all straight.  If you’ve ever been to Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis or Division Street in Chicago on a Saturday night, that’s what Beale Street is like.  Neon signs.  Bars and more bars, with music pouring out of them and tipsy people wandering from one to the next, laughing.

BealeBeale St Me on Beale

Lynn and I got some drinks and sat on an outdoor patio, listening to the house band.  This was the first of many moments when I would feel like I had been dropped into a giant, never-ending Viagra commercial.  I said this—or shouted it—to Lynn and she gave me the blank look of someone who has never seen a prescription drug commercial.  Because there are no prescription drug commercials in the UK.  So to Lynn, and other readers who have a National Health Service instead of a Medical Industrial Complex, that link’s for you.  Imagine seeing adverts like that 5-6 times during your favorite TV program.

We’re everywhere, we post-WWII western baby boomers.  Now that we’re beginning to retire in mass numbers you will see us at every festival, concert, and tourist attraction.  Boomer men, in particular, have a thing about guitars, and being cool, and fancying themselves as musicians.  Their standard gear is jeans and a white T-shirt with a plaid shirt over it, and either cowboy boots or sneakers.  Fedoras are required at jazz venues.

I don’t mean to be critical.  I’m a boomer myself, although at the tail end, so I’ve seen “my generation” surge along through the pipeline of history all my life.  We get blamed for ruining the economy and we are said to be blazing a trail for “vital aging” for younger generations.  Thank god there was no Viagra in 1946.