Each year Jason and I do a road trip. The rules are very simple: We try to go to places we haven’t been, the place must have something we’ve heard about that is slightly odd, and the place must take us out of our comfort zone so we can see what it’s like living out of our East Coast liberal bubble.
Places we’ve been include Wyoming, Mount Rushmore, The Corn Palace, Iowa State Fair and Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood. This year we chose a drive from Nashville to Memphis with pit-stops at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry and Graceland.
As with all good road trips, you get sidelined with unexpected sites and experiences. We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where we got a guitar-shaped fly swatter as a souvenir, then to the Grand Ole Opry, which was really out of our cultural zone. People treated the singers and the music like a religious experience, and we left when a singer was singing his Christian country hit “I’m building my mansion in the sky next to Jesus,” to which I asked Jason: “Jesus has a mansion? I thought he was a meager carpenter?”
On the road to Memphis, we found ourselves in Centerville, looking at a chickenwire statue of comedian Minnie Pearl, and passing many once-bustling but now-dilapidated small towns.
Memphis had two major stops aside from the food. One was Graceland, which, in the middle of July, was snow-covered with Christmas decorations, including a neon sign that read “Merry Christmas To All, Elvis.” We discovered that they were filming The Hallmark Channel’s “Christmas at Graceland 2.”
But the bigger surprise was our last and most important stop: the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony.
The exhibits take you from the beginning of slavery in America to today’s civil-rights issues. From an African prince being taken away as a slave (and released years later after much diplomacy) to Frederick Douglass to the lunch-counter sit-ins. There were exhibits on Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus; Bull Connor’s racist, horrendous treatment of children; and the March on Washington, with the story of Bayard Rustin and how civil-rights leaders kept him on as organizer of the march even after learning the FBI would expose him as being homosexual.
Then you move onto the years 1968-69, with pictures from the LGBT movement being embraced.
But for me, the last exhibit in the museum was the biggest surprise. Near the gift shop was a video-history kiosk, a project spearheaded by Comcast NBCUniversal in conjunction with the Equal Justice Initiative, titled “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.” It includes more than 100 interviews filmed in at least 10 cities with people who participated in the civil-rights movement, organized the March on Washington and worked with or were inspired by Dr. King. It was an immense and expensive project, and very inclusive.
I’ve written in several columns how MLK was an inspiration for my civil disobedience over the years. While he used Connor to publicize cruelty to the Black community, I used my demonstrations against TV networks to put a spotlight on our invisibility. I gave an interview saying just that to the “Voices” project long ago, and I had forgotten about it. So, when Jason and I reached the end of the National Civil Rights Museum, seeing myself on screen talking about how Dr. King inspired my work for LGBT rights was very emotional, especially after this year of visibility and change.
It reminded me that we can’t forget where we’ve been, or who has inspired us along the way. n