GALEN HOLLEY: The National Civil Rights Museum is a lot to take

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

The photo, mounted outside Room 307 at the Lorraine Motel, shows King reading the Memphis Press-Scimitar. “King takes over for Meredith,” the headline reads. This was taken two years before he died, just prior to the “March Against Fear” in Mississippi.
King is youthful, his face is almost pudgy. He looks comfortable, hidden amid coffee cups and folded jackets and creased bed linens. Any minute he’ll be about some terribly important business, leaving the warm, orange glow of polyester and Formica for the roar of the streets.
This is too much to take all at once – Fannie Lou Hamer, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Highlander Folk School.
The Little Rock Nine. “Let’s all give Ernest Green a round of applause,” the young tour guide says.
Green was the first black senior to graduate from Central High School, slogging his way, heavy, like slow steps up Golgatha, under curses and spit and hatred.
Rosa Parks, turns out, wasn’t some milquetoast old lady, just a blushing 42 when she refused to get up, secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP.
“She was the perfect person for the job,” the guide says. He’s got the keen, poetic bravado of the hip-hop culture. “Non-threatening, connected, clean criminal record,” he says, checking off on his fingers.
“How many of you have heard of A. Philip Randolph?” the guide says, his hands raised, fingers outspread, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Nobody, he says, ever thinks of the Klan as America’s first home-grown terrorist unit.
“James Earl Ray was not an unpracticed criminal,” my friend says. “Not, I’d say, a man hard to recognize. How could he have eluded the authorities for so long?”
Mail fraud, armed robbery, roaming the Northern Hemisphere. Dancing lessons in California, walking the beach in sunny Acapulco when he should have been stacking time in the Missouri state pen. A young life brimming with evil loose on the world.
The bathroom from which Ray shot King is a filthy, haunted little place, remade in all its derelict gloom with chipped paint and mineral-stained toilet. A clear line of sight to the Lorraine balcony.
A few blocks away, the lectern at the Mason Temple is unremarkable. It’s cheap – lacquered laminate over press board. This is the spot where King rested his hands, laid here his notes for the “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech, the one the world almost didn’t hear.
“He was sick that night, not feeling well. He planned to stay in his room,” the guide says. King was summoned to the temple by a clamoring herd of preachers and garbagemen. They hadn’t come to hear Abernathy. They wanted King.
“He probably came in through that door,” says the Rev. Jeremy Gray, a young preacher with the Church of God in Christ. He points at the southern wall as the afternoon sunlight pours in.
“It was raining, probably dark already because it was spring,” Gray says. The place must have gone up like a powder keg when they saw him.
Behind me, as if waiting there for choirs of seraphim, hundreds of seats rise up to the east. King would have looked out over some 5,000 souls that night as he spoke. Behind them, forever emblazoned in stained glass, he would have seen, as I do, the image of Charles Harrison Mason.
The church founder is wearing a blue suit and a black bow-tie. The scripture is open on his lap. His left hand is raised, in a gentle gesture, like he’s posing for a prayer card.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or

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