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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Civil Rights Museum, James Meredith Statue, Blues Revival

Linda and I just got back from our first road trip in 18 years. Between us, we could handle driving about 300 miles/day. Memphis is under 600 miles from Evanston, so we did it with an overnight. 

The main purpose for our trip was a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which neither of us had seen. The museum, which is part of the Smithsonian network, encompasses parts of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated, including the room where he spent the last night of his life. It would be deeply moving for anyone, but especially for those of a certain age who remember the events as they happened.

One of the exhibits is burned bus (although not the bus) from Anniston, Alabama, where a mob attacked Freedom Riders in 1961, who had to escape through windows. There were equally emotional moments at virtually every exhibit. There is also a room about the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964. It is terrifying to remember how long and violently white southerners resisted voting rights and integration, with so many beatings and murders.

We also visited several music museums, of which there are many in Memphis. Most interesting was the Stax Museum, telling the story of Stax Records, which existed only from 1961-75 (with other iterations preceding and later revived). Operating out of a former movie theater, Stax was famous for the “Memphis Sound” of stars like Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and others. An interesting subtext in several exhibits was the unspoken disdain for Motown Records, because of that label’s more “mainstream” sound.

Stax was also notable for being 50% woman owned, and for its integrated house band. The huge museum (in the old movie theater) was almost empty, with only the two of us and two others.

In contrast, the much smaller Sun Studio was packed. They run 7 tours a day of 30 people (that’s over 200, for those who are counting), and we were told it is always full. Our tour included a bus load of tourists from Poland. I get that Elvis is the biggest name in Memphis music (we had no interest in Graceland), along with Johnny Cash, but it was hard to ignore the disparity between overwhelming interest in the predominantly white studio, versus the nearly empty Black studio.

The Civil Rights Museum was well attended, including many groups of local school children. There were 10 or 12 busses lined up outside as we were leaving (we were there at opening, of course). So that was good to see.

Our next stop was Oxford, Mississippi, to see the James Meredith statue at Ole Miss. For those who may not recall, Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, when he was a 29-year old Air Force veteran. Eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, the university had still never admitted an African American.

Meredith’s first two applications were denied, and he was finally admitted only after a successful lawsuit, which the university resisted all the way to the Supreme Court. (He won in the Fifth Circuit and cert was denied.)

Meredith was greeted by rioting students. Cars were burned, rocks and bottles thrown, and two people were killed in the ensuing violence. Meredith was unable to register despite the efforts of over 500 deputy U.S. marshals and other federal agents. He was finally able to enroll only after Pres. Kennedy called up the national guard, employing over 30,000 troops in the largest invocation of the Insurrection Act since Reconstruction. 

Meredith was treated abominably by classmates, who harassed him in the dorm and refused to sit near him in the dining hall. Fortunately, he needed only two semesters to graduate.

I was surprised to learn that the statue was only erected in 2006, forty-five years after Meredith graduated. The “Civil Rights Memorial” has Meredith walking toward a portico, with “Courage” written on the side facing him, and “Opportunity” where he would presumably emerge. There are two inscriptions on the memorial, but not a word about Ole Miss's furious resistance to integration, or the federal intervention that was necessary for Meredith to attend Ole Miss. A lot happened between "Courage" and "Opportunity," but you wouldn't learn about it from the Civil Rights Memorial.

Then on to Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta, which was really interesting. Clarksdale is sometimes called the home of the blues, though it is hardly unique in producing blues musicians. Still, it was home at one time or another to Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Muddy Waters, Ike and Tina Turner, W.C. Handy, and many others.

There is a blues history revival in Clarksdale, advertising live blues seven days a week. The result is a mix of tourist-oriented business, a few remaining local businesses, and many empty ruined storefronts. There was a surprising number of dress and fashion shops, including a bridal shop. A large storefront had a big sign for “Shankerman’s,” probably a variety store dating to the ‘30s or '40s. The place looked open, no doubt under different ownership, but we didn’t go in. 

Much of the blues revival is being done by white people, playing for mostly white audiences. I think the festivals – there are five every year in warm weather – are probably pretty cool and much more racially diverse, with dozens of acts playing outdoors and in various venues for thousands of people. There was a recent segment about them on 60 Minutes.

A random Saturday in February is a different story. We went to three sparsely-attended shows during the day, all very sincere, although amatueurish, by guys who owned the venues.  Gotta give ‘em credit for moving to Clarksdale and investing in the place, but I probably wouldn’t take time to hear them in Evanston (and definitely not all three). It’s hard to say how much impact these places have had on the local economy. There were only about 20 tourists in sight that afternoon, and I suppose we all had at least one meal in a restaurant, but that seemed to be about it. The festivals are probably better for the locals, depending on who can set up food stands.

The music is obviously better at night, with several clubs offering shows, but we were limited by our early bedtime (we could only stay up for one set at one club). 

We chose Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club, featured on the 60 Minutes segment,  which is a big deal locally and nationally. It was packed on Saturday night; mostly locals because we hadn’t seen that many tourists. It was one of only two places where we saw Black and white people interacting other than commercially. (The other was our hotel.) 

Music was by Keith Johnson and the Big Muddy Band. His great-grandmother was Muddy Waters’s sister. They never met, as Muddy died well before Keith was born. I’d seen Muddy Waters many times when I was a Chicago teenager in the late 1960s, so it was great to see his collateral descendant. He didn’t sound like Muddy, and didn’t try to, but he did play a few of his numbers. The show was a mix of classic blues and more contemporary R&B and Motown. Very professional and enjoyable.

Of course, we went to the legendary crossroads (now said to be US 61 and US 49) where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

Bob Dylan sang about G-d and Abraham at the other end of the same highway.

Our next road trip will be to Minnesota, because my brother lives there. He is a Dylan scholar at the University of Minnesota, so perhaps we will get to Hibbing.

Posted by Steve Lubet on February 20, 2024 at 06:37 PM | Permalink


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