Walking in Memphis: I've Been to the Mountaintop (1/2)

“You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea”

Medgar Evers

State 37: Tennessee April 10, 2018


Occasionally our cross country trip requires us to briefly cross over to adjacent states we are not yet scheduled to visit, or have already visited, to see points of interest not included in our path through a specific state. Since our path through Arkansas did not take us through the Northern part of the state, we went back into Arkansas to finish our exploration while enroute to Tennessee.


We woke up at a Walmart in Little Rock, AR well rested, and ready for a brand new day. After spending 3 days exploring Northern Arkansas, today we drive Northeast to enter the 37th state on our cross country journey to discover America and find a new state to call home; Tennessee: The Volunteer State. Wow! What an unexpected state motto! I was certain the state slogan was going to be about country music or Elvis. Kudos to Tennessee for choosing a thought provoking motto embracing the very essence of the state’s history. During the War of 1812 Tennessee soldiers played a prominent role in America's victory at the Battle of New Orleans. During the early days of the Mexican American War, 30,000 Tennessee residents volunteered to take up arms against our neighbors to the South. Second only to Virginia, Tennessee provided the most soldiers to the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and despite being a Confederate State, Tennessee also sent more soldiers to the Union Army than the rest of the Confederacy combined! A state’s willingness to defend their liberty is a very attractive quality in a potential new home. Will the Volunteer State’s history of fighting for their freedom inspire the Cross Country Couple to call the state our new home? We can’t wait to begin our week of exploration in Tennessee!

We entered the Volunteer State in the Southwestern corner at the City of Memphis, I could not resist singing Marc Cohen’s 1991 hit song, “Walking in Memphis”. The lyrics are below if you would like to sing along, but just give me a second to grab my guitar.

Put on my blue suede shoes And I boarded the plane Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues In the middle of the pouring rain W.C. Handy, won't you look down over me Yeah, I got a first class ticket But I'm as blue as a boy can be

Then I'm walking in Memphis Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale Walking in Memphis But do I really feel the way I feel?

Wait a minute! “Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale”? What in the world in is “Beale”? A quick Google search revealed something quite interesting. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark, Beale is a 1.8 mile long street in the heart of Downtown Memphis possessing significant ties to the Civil Rights Movement and to the history of American music!

Created in 1841 by developer Robinson Topps, Beale Street primarily contained businesses catering to merchant ships traveling along the Mississippi River, and by the 1860’s transient black musicians began performing on Beale. After a series of Yellow Fever epidemics devastated Memphis, the price of property plummeted throughout the city prompting a Memphis African American named Robert Church to purchase the land in and around Beale Street. Church built a solid reputation in the Memphis business community, and went on to become the First African American millionaire in the South! In addition, Church founded the first black owned bank in Memphis; Solvent Savings Bank, and extended credit to African Americans to buy homes and develop businesses in the area. By the early 1900s, Beale Street was filled with businesses primarily owned by African-Americans!

With the arrival of the “Roaring 20’s”, Beale Street was in its heyday featuring nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, stores, pawn shops, gambling, drinking, prostitution, voodoo and a red hot music scene. Up through the 1940’s, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Memphis Minnie, and countless other Blues and Jazz performers developed the musical style now known as the Memphis Blues.

The 1960’s brought hard times on Beale Street, and most buildings were abandoned, and began to fall into disrepair. From the 1970’s through the early 1980’s, the City of Memphis and community leaders undertook a revitalization to save the historically significant street. Today, over 1 million people from around the world come to Beale Street each year for restaurants, outdoor festivals, and above all else, to hear the Blues!

Since we visited Beale Street mid-day, there was not a whole lot goin’ on, but I can imagine this place would be a hoppin’ on the evenings and weekends. We did get to visit an outdoor Blues bar featuring a live performance, and stopped in to listen to a few sets. While walking on Beale, we made an interesting observation. While the Hollywood Walk of Fame has stars on the sidewalk, Beale Street features large brass music notes embedded in the sidewalk offering a tangible embodiment of the many talented people who put Memphis music and Beale Street on the world map. Father of the Blues; W.C Handy, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Blues Brothers and of course Elvis Presley are among those featured on 165 music notes! Beale Street was a tad reminiscent of the music scene in the New Orleans French Quarter. Please see the pictures below.

Aside from the ample live music venues, Beale Street contained the highest concentration of historical markers we have encountered on our cross country trip. One such marker proved to be of particular interest honoring Ida B. Wells. Born into slavery in Mississippi on July 16, 1862, Wells was an educator, feminist, African American investigative journalist, early leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the founders of the NAACP. After moving to Memphis to find work as a teacher, Wells co-founded a newspaper with nationwide circulation called; Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. By publishing articles throughout the 1890’s, Wells is credited with bringing national attention to the lynching of blacks in the Southern US who had committed no criminal acts. Wells' newspaper office was housed inside the Beale Street Baptist Church, which today is the oldest surviving African American Church in Tennessee. After her Memphis printing presses were destroyed by a mob of angry white men, Wells moved to Chicago where she continued to write articles and publicly speak for civil rights for the remainder of her life. Wells was also a strong advocate for Women’s Rights, Women’s Suffrage, and traveled internationally on lecture tours. Despite facing lifelong blatant racial discrimination for being black and being a women, Ida B. Wells life's works centered around combating prejudice and violence, and became the most famous black women in America of her time.

Please see the pictures below of our visit to the Historic Beale Street in Downtown Memphis.

After departing Beale Street, we walked one block West to the Cross Country Couple’s “Historic Location” for Tennessee; the site of Martin Luther King’s Assassination. On February 11, 1968. 1300 African American Memphis City sanitation workers staged a walkout to protest unequal wages, unsafe working conditions and being denied union recognition. As the conflict and racial violence escalated, Martin Luther King visited Memphis to peacefully combat racial inequality with protests and boycotts, and to assist in negotiations between the sanitation workers and city hall. On April 3, 1968, King spoke to over 1000 striking sanitation workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis, and delivered his famous speech known as, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. While the speech centers around the striking sanitation workers, below are King's closing statements where he appears to predict his untimely death:

“We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’ve been to the Mountain Top” would be King’s final speech. Less than 24 hours later, Civil Right's Leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Hotel on April 4, 1968 at 6:01 pm. A sniper's bullet entered King’s right cheek, broke his jaw, traveled down his spinal cord, severed his jugular vein and lodged in his right shoulder. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

The Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated went into foreclosure in December of 1982, and the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation purchased the property. Over the next decade, the site underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation to transform the defunct motel into the National Civil Rights Museum. Opened on September 28, 1991 and designated as a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum in 2016, The National Civil Rights Museum traces the history of the Civil Rights Movement from the 17th century up until present day.

Throughout our Cross Country trip, Lori and I have had the distinct privilege of visiting a multitude of significant sites related to the Civil Rights Movement. Please click on the links below to the associated blogs:

-The slave quarters in a 19th century sugar cane plantation

-Site of Rosa Parks arrest and Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement

-Sitting in the exact seat on the exact bus Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat

-Visiting the Tuskegee Airmen whose actions lead to the desegregation of the US military

-Visiting the Monroe Elementary School from the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs Board of Ed leading to the desegregation of public schools

I am not going to provide pictures of the museum or my typical blow by blow walk through, since many of the museum’s depictions have already been covered in my previous blog posts. If you are unable to drive all across the America to visit the significant sites individually, the Civil Rights Museum offers a nice overview of the evolution of equality in America, and features several historic buildings worth visiting. If you really want to experience all the museum has to offer, be prepared to spend at least 2-3 days. For the purpose of this post, I will be specifically focusing on the site of King’s assassination at the former Lorraine Motel. From the motel's sign, the period appropriate cars parked outside, and the site of the assassination on the balcony, the external facade of the building was expertly restored to it's 1968 appearance the day King was killed.

The interior of the room King stayed in that fateful day was impressively restored to what one would expect to find in a 1960’s budget hotel. Please see the pictures below of the site of Martin Luther King’s Assassination.

Did Martin Luther King predict his own death in his final public speech? Many believe King’s comments were made in reference to the bomb threat against the plane he had flown to Memphis, but I strongly disagree. When King arrived in Memphis in April of 1968, he already was well aware of the dangers associated with being the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1956, King’s house was firebombed during the Montgomery Bus Boycott! In 1958, King was stabbed in the chest in New York by a severely mentally ill woman named Izola Curry. In 1963, the FBI sent King a letter coercing him to commit suicide! After JFK’s assassination in 1963, King said to his wife, “This is what is going to happen to me, I keep telling you this is a sick society”. Furthermore, King did not previously talk about his death in any of his prior speeches.

Unfortunately, the world will never know what was going through King’s mind the moment he said, “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land”. Whether or not King predicted his death less than 24 hours prior to his assassination is actually inconsequential and irrelevant. There is something much more important we should all take away from King’s final public statement. King wanted us all to know regardless of what may happen to him, we as Americans must continue the non-violent fight for equality. Although King’s dream is certainly not dead, his dream has yet to be fully realized. You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea! Even 50 years after the assassination, it is still up to each of us to carry on!

After departing the site of Martin Luther King Jr’s Assassination, we drove across town to the local library to catch up on some computer work. While I was busy typing away on my next blog post, I heard the following announcement on the overhead speaker, “Hello library patrons! We cordially invite you to the libraries' main lobby to hear the Overton High School perform their live Jazz ensemble”. Seriously!!! A live performance by a Jazz band IN THE PUBLIC LIBRARY!!! We are in Memphis, a city known for their music, with ample venues to perform. Whose bright idea was it to host a Jazz concert in the Public Library? After performing a few songs in the main lobby, the 18-piece orchestra marched throughout the entire library trumpets, trombones and all!!! Clearly I was not going to get much accomplished, so I decided to just roll with it and enjoy the show. Although the performance was very loud, I must admit the high school Jazz band sounded quite good, which you can see for yourself by clicking here.

After popping a few Tylenol for my headache, we departed the library, and drove across town where we found a Walmart to spend the night.

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