“Okay, arms parallel to the ground, left leg straight, bend your right knee slightly. Now, looking into your third eye, extend into the stretch.”
In my thirteenth year, I spent many afternoons riding my bike through the streets of Memphis. I always took the back streets to avoid traffic and to see the scenes of daily life being played out in families’ front yards. Winding my way through the city streets was like getting into a time machine. The further west I moved towards the river, the further back in time I would find myself. Southwest downtown was filled with deteriorating brick cotton warehouses. The faded names on the buildings — “Union Planters” “Crooks Gin” and “Southern Station” — spoke quietly of days where bustling businesses and trading companies pumped cotton beyond those streets and into the wardrobes of families throughout the country.
On one particular early spring afternoon, I came upon an older black woman standing in front of a motel. In her hands she held bouquets of pink and yellow flowers. She was quietly crying and I could hear her faint voice, “Flowers for sale.” In my adolescent curiosity, I stopped to ask her why she was standing in front of a rundown motel on a nearly deserted street. She simply pointed to the aged motel and said, “That is where he was shot.” “Not many people remember but I was there,” she said. “I did not see it happen, but I was there.” The woman settled me into her memory. “All I heard was the cries. My grandmother pulled me along as we ran down an alley. Later, we heard he was dead.”
The woman agreed to watch my bicycle as I climbed the steps of the motel leading to the now infamous balcony. I imagined I could see blood on the landing while I approached the room where he would have slept that night. Standing in the doorway, I could hear the words “Free at last” spilling into the empty street below. Upon entering the motel room I saw its walls covered in tattered newspaper clippings interspersed with a few more dignified photographs. I stood listening to the speech crackling from the tape recorder that looked to my eyes as old as the speech itself.
Today, downtown Memphis sits on the bank of the Mississippi River as it always has, its history hidden by the gentrification of our new age. The cotton warehouses have become lofts complete with fancy restaurants and shops for the new urban elite looking for a feel of days past. The Lorraine Motel and its famous room are now the last stop in the tour offered by the encompassing National Civil Rights Museum. The Southside of the city has moved further south, out of the reach of tourists and newcomers looking for signs of the city’s history without wanting to see its wrinkles.
My experience in the early eighties with the woman in front of the Lorraine Motel follows me to this day. The moment I first stood upon that balcony has become a cornerstone in my foundation. The occurrence has shaped my movements, my direction, and my viewpoints.
Bending my knee slightly, I raise my arms into the warrior pose. Breath. Breathe. “We shall overcome.”
- BROWSE / IN TIMELINE
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