By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
MEMPHIS – At the beginning of the tour, the young guide asked what the 14th Amendment had done for blacks.
“It made us human,” said the Rev. Larry Goodine, speaking in a solemn voice, trying to understand the evil men have visited upon each other throughout human history.
Goodine, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Booneville, visited the National Civil Rights Museum on Thursday with Ruth Fondon and Alice Copen, friends from Tupelo.
Traveling at the invitation of the Daily Journal, they were pilgrims, folks who wanted to walk the grounds of the Lorraine Motel, the place where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed more than four decades ago.
Two days before what would have been King’s 82nd birthday, they traveled to Memphis to pay their respects, and to learn more about the civil rights movement that he’d given his life to support.
The tour guide explained that after blacks had worked and died as slaves for more than 200 years on American soil, the 14th Amendment overruled the “Dred Scott” decision and said they could be considered U.S. citizens.
The tour moved on.
“This is a minstrel character, meant to ridicule,” the guide said, pointing to a cardboard likeness of a white man painted in black face. The guide danced a jig and smiled like a buffoon.
“Amos and Andy,” Goodine shouted from the back of the crowd.
“That’s right. Steppin’ and fetchin,’” the tour guide said.
Tupelo resident Ruth Fondon, a member or New Providence Baptist Church, stood silent, her eyes narrowed, trying to fathom how society could once have tolerated such overt racism.
Alice Copen, a member of Jewish Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo, looked as though she’d cry. A few minutes later she stopped to read a plaque.
“This is what Haley Barbour was talking about,” said Copen, referring to remarks the governor made in a December interview with The Weekly Standard. Barbour appeared to dismiss the well-documented racism by white citizens’ councils in Mississippi. He later retreated from his remarks.
On the plaque Copen read about how the citizens’ councils, under names like the Southern Gentlemen, the White Brotherhood and the Christian Civic League, opposed racial integration and did everything in their power to oppose the fair and equal treatment of blacks.
Goodine, Copen and Fondon moved along through the re-created exhibits – the burned out Greyhound bus that carried the Freedom Riders into the jaws of the Jim Crow South; the Birmingham jail where King wrote his famous letter on scraps of toilet paper; the bus Rosa Parks boarded and refused to relinquish her seat.
As the three pilgrims approached room 306, the handsome, cheerful tour guide turned somber.
He spoke of how ebullient and even playful King was on the evening of April 4, 1968, when he stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and told a friend, a musician, to play “Take my hand, precious Lord” later that evening.
Goodine, Copen and Fondon filed past the room, where the bed in which King slept his last night has been turned down. They listened, with tears welling in their eyes, to Mahalia Jackson singing “Take my hand…”
Minutes later, from a bathroom window across the street, they viewed the line of sight James Earl Ray took when he shot King.
After a lunch of Memphis barbecue, the three made their way south, to the Mason Temple. It was here, on the last night of his life, that King delivered his “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King said. “But I’m not concerned about that, now.” Then, he spoke the words that seemed to foretell his own imminent murder. “I may not get there with you,” he said.
Copen stood at the very lectern from which King spoke, staring out at the 3,500 empty seats inside the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ.
The empty space was awash in the late afternoon sunlight, pouring in through the stained glass window depicting Charles Harrison Mason, the COGIC’s founder. King must have seen this image as he spoke on that rainy night, the pilgrims said. Copen seemed lost in thought.
“It really does feel like a mountain top up here,” she said, after a long pause, looking down from the podium.
Below her, over the wrought iron rails, Goodine and Fondon looked up, as though they were seeing through a window in time.
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.