A Song to Remember
I was sitting in the modest congregation at Unity Santa Fe as the choir director, Catherine, began a powerful rendition of We Shall Overcome, a tribute to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day before the 2018 national holiday honoring him. Her voice evoked a quiet passion, as if she was telling a story that had been recited many times yet was still unrealized. As quick as she began singing, my mind journeyed back almost 50 years, where I saw myself in my childhood home in East Memphis, the evening of April 4, 1968. Within an instant, my eyes began to tear up. Though I was doing everything I could to be present to the music, spirit made clear that it was taking me where it wanted to go regardless how much I resisted.
My family had finished dinner and we were all in the middle of the den floor playing a board game. I was ten years old. My sister was eight and my brothers were six and four. The scene playing out in my head was one of laughter and light hearted banter as each player tossed the dice and counted off their game piece moving forward. A knock on the kitchen door interrupted our family time and my father was first on his feet to see who it was.
“It’s Mickey with the dry cleaning. Honey, get my wallet for me?” Our game came to a halt as my mother headed for their bedroom. Mr. Green came into the den with his delivery in hand and asked my father, “Have you seen the news tonight?”
Draping the clothes over a chair, my father replied, “No, the television hasn’t been on at all.” About that time my mother came back with the wallet and counted out what was owed Mr. Green. Though his back was to me, I heard Mr. Green tell my parents, “Martin Luther King was assassinated this afternoon and downtown Memphis is on fire. There are riots in the streets. And the National Guard is being called up.”
My mother gasped and my father headed toward the television. Mr. Green stopped him, saying “Don’t turn it on with the kids in here.” As they reconvened near the kitchen, I could see their mouths moving though I heard no sounds. I remember sitting on the floor imagining tanks rolling up my street and flames appearing in the sky just a block or so from our house. I had no idea who Mr. King was, or why his being assassinated meant downtown was burning. Truth was, I had no clue what assassinated or rioting meant; and I wasn’t sure where downtown was. Nevertheless, I could sense from the looks on their faces that this was bad. Really, really bad.
Hearing the vocal power of Catherine's voice brought me back to the present as she sang, “We walk hand in hand.” I could tell she was in the moment, clearly seeing the vision of togetherness and knowing within her heart that the day was sure to come. Tears again started down my cheeks, as I recalled the day in 1987 when I first visited The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was killed. I was there to handle the single task of measuring the window size of the room adjacent to Dr. King’s room where an architectural model of a proposed National Civil Rights Museum was to be placed. The powerful, childhood images from that night in our den, along with the countless photos and news stories I’d seen over the years, raced through my mind as I made the short trip from the office. I was more than a little nervous as I drove into the parking lot. The building was not in the best of shape and the area around it was considered by many to be dangerous. I kept reminding myself that I was safe, having driven most every street in the surrounding miles of downtown many times over the last couple of years as a planning coordinator for the Memphis Center City Commission.
The woman in charge of the project at the Commission had told me to go to the motel’s front desk and ask for Jackie. She warned me that Jackie was not in favor of the museum project and could be harsh to Center City staffers. “Don’t let her antagonize you.” I opened the door to the office where a few people were conversing in a small seating area, however, no one was at the desk. Someone called for Jackie and she appeared through a door behind the counter, “You must be from the Center City Commission.” I replied that I was and after introducing myself, I asked if it was a good time for her to let me in the room. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Jacqueline Smith. Now is fine.” She reached for a set of keys as she came around the desk telling no one in particular that she would be back shortly.
As we walked the short distance to a stairway, I had a sense of sadness run up my spine seeing a simple wreath of fading artificial greenery and white flowers hanging on the door to Room 306, which was where Dr. King was staying while he was in town for the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s protest march. There was no talk between us as we walked past his room to number 307. Jackie opened the door and stepped off to the side. I thanked her and walked in to measure the window, the size of the room, and the width and height of the entry door. It only took a couple minutes and as I walked out of the room I thanked her again for her time. As she locked the door she asked if I was from Memphis and if I remembered when Dr. King was assassinated. I told her I did, and as a 10 year old boy from East Memphis I never imagined I would be outside his room, standing on the balcony where he died. In that moment there was a distinct change in the space between us and I felt a connection beginning to form.
Jackie turned from the door, took my hand and moved along the balcony towards Dr. King’s room where she steered me gently down to my knees. She guided my hand to a dark stain on the surface and softly rubbed my palm on the rough concrete walkway. “This is where Dr. King fell when he was shot and the stain is his blood that was never completely cleaned.” Immediately I felt a bolt of lightning run through my spine and my eyes began pouring tears. I couldn’t speak. Jackie said nothing and kept holding my hand as I attempted to regain some composure. She helped me to my feet and in a soft voice asked, “Would you like to go inside Dr. King’s room?”
Still unable to speak, I nodded a yes, and we moved towards Room 306. I looked back over my right shoulder at the stained concrete again, doing my best to deal with everything that was happening in my head, my heart and my body. As the door opened and we walked inside there was a distinct sense of a very welcoming spirit that seemed to wrap around us. The room was small with two beds on the left as we entered; a dresser on the right with a small television on top; and the bathroom straight ahead at the rear. There was a musty smell in the air. The beds were a bit disheveled and Jackie quietly told me, “The room is the same as the day Dr. King died, other than all his personal belongings were removed.” I’m not sure how long we were in the room, all time seemed to stop while we were inside. At some point we walked out, she locked the door and we moved toward the stairway. Neither of us spoke again until we were downstairs at the lobby door. She told me to give her a call if I needed any other measurements and I thanked her for the special tour, though no words could express the gratitude I felt for the experiences she had blessed me with that day.
Returning again to the sanctuary, Catherine’s voice was resounding throughout the room with an expression of beauty and peace. I noticed a woman, sitting a few rows in front of me and across the center aisle, wiping away tears. Another woman a couple of seats away from me was sitting stationary with her eyes closed, as was a man in the row in front of her. They also had tears streaming down their cheeks and I wondered if it was the song or the remembrance of Dr. King that was touching their hearts. Catherine was passionately in the moment and the pianist was hitting the keys with a new fervor. The sanctuary was filled with sound and it was clear that every individual in the room was having their own unique experience. For me, the next images that came through were far from beautiful and peaceful. I hesitated for a moment. I knew that I could always stay with the music, however, I took a deep breath and again went back to Memphis.
It was not long after my visit to the Lorraine that I found myself in the bathroom where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. An urban pioneer artist had purchased the building and created a massive studio and gallery space for his work, as well as a living area for him and his wife. I had met him once or twice at South Main Arts District meetings, and was stopping by to deliver some documents for an upcoming South Main residents meeting. After I arrived he filled me in on the history of the building which, of course, brought the Lorraine visit with Jackie front and center in my head. I was stunned when he suggested I take a look out the window where the killer took aim, and yet at the time, I felt I couldn’t refuse. I fought back all sorts of emotions as I looked across the street to the balcony, seeing the wreath still hanging on the door of Room 306. The image in my mind of Dr. King laying on the concrete while people were pointing in the direction of the window became too much for me to handle. After only a few moments I moved away from the window and hastily left the bathroom; somehow managing to say goodbye and make it to my car before sobbing like a child.
Going back and forth between the music and memories had brought me to the edge of a total breakdown. Thankfully, Catherine began singing “We are not afraid,” with her voice filled with a fearless resolve, reminding us all that we have the power to choose love. As I listened, a much needed calm came over me, just in time for another visit back. This part of the journey took place in the late 1990’s, while I was in Memphis to visit family and friends. I had been living in Dallas for some time, and I decided that a visit to the now completed National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel was overdue. I’d driven through the South Main area a number of times on other visits since the museum opened in 1991, however, I never made the time. Admittedly, it was mostly because I was afraid of how I would respond in public.
Even though I’d seen the Museum’s website and was familiar with some of the key exhibits from my time at the Center City Commission, I had no idea what the experience was going to be like as I parked and approached the entrance. Looking up as I opened the door, I noticed a large white wreath, with a spray of red roses across the top, now hanging on the railing in front of Room 306. The minute I moved from the lobby into the exhibit space I felt all my resistance subside and a power-filled resolve come over me.
I recall the transit bus that visitors would enter and be met with demands that “Negroes go to the back of the bus.” It played in my head for weeks, as did the lunch counter exhibit. There my heart pounded while experiencing the harshest screams blasting me as I sat on a stool at the counter, “Get out. We don’t serve niggers here.” The N-word has always been a source of anguish for me and was particularly hurtful that day. I had heard it over and again during my junior year of high school and every time it felt wrong. My senior year was to be the first year of court ordered bussing in Memphis, and more than half my junior class graduated early and attended summer school so as not to be bussed to an inner-city school or be with black students attending our school. The racism I experienced from many of those graduating early was unbelievable. Thankfully, despite being accepted at two private schools, I convinced my family to let me attend my public high school for my senior year. It was a most fulfilling educational experience that I will never forget.
Finally I arrived at the exhibit of Room 306, viewed through a glass wall looking straight at the two beds. I could feel my heart beating harder and faster as I neared the glass wall. I kept telling myself not to faint. Filled with anticipation, I looked into the room and found it was almost exactly as I had seen it the day Jackie had opened the door and we walked inside. So many emotions were running A Song to Remember Wayne Harris February 13, 2018 5 through me as I stood there in quiet sorrow. Suddenly, I felt an arm move around my waist and a hand coming to rest on mine. As I turned I saw a beautiful black woman, dressed like she had just come from a church service. My eyes locked onto hers, and smiling she whispered, “It still gets me too every time I come here. I just can’t believe he is gone but I feel so close to him whenever I stand here.” I was desperate to tell her my story, though somehow it seemed right to stand with her and accept the words of comfort and connection. We were, after all, joined as one in that moment.
Later as I walked to my car, I noticed a small table across the street with a blue tarp over it and a bundled up black woman sitting with a thermos and all sorts of pamphlets spread out. It was Jackie. I had heard that she had been on the street protesting the development of the museum since construction began, contending that Dr. King would not have wanted a museum built but rather housing for those most in need. Seeing her continued resolve was inspiring. She looked up and smiled as I approached the table. I returned the smile and said, “You may not remember but we met a number of years ago.”
“Yes we did. I don’t recall your name but I do remember the day you came to measure the room next to Dr. King’s for the model.” She stood and walked around the table, reaching out to give me a hug. We visited for a couple of minutes before others came up to her table and she excused herself to speak with them. As I turned to leave with the tears coming on, I smiled in her direction. She looked up and returned the gesture with a knowing smile of her own.
My journey through We Shall Overcome was almost finished and my memories of Dr. King’s death in Memphis had touched my heart anew. Arriving into the present moment, I heard Catherine launch into the final chorus. It was a heartfelt prayer for a world yet to come. “We are not afraid. We all live in peace. We shall overcome, some sweet day.” The congregation gave her a standing ovation. The minister stepped forward as everyone was taking their seats. “I can’t imagine there are any dry eyes in this place after that performance, Catherine. I’ve been crying since the first verse. Thank you.” I wiped my eyes, as were many others around me. Fortunately, there were a couple of minutes before the message, as the minister was readying the lectern. It gave me just enough time to silently express my gratitude for the song, for the memories and the amazing blessings I received along the way.