In 2004, my best friend Mindy and I decided to take a trip to drown our sorrows and/or celebrate our good fortune (yes, you can do both simultaneously) following a divorce for each of us. For reasons I cannot fully explain, we landed on Memphis as our destination of choice.
Although Memphis may not be the dream holiday vacation for most, the trip has turned out to be one of our most cherished and memorable for a variety of reasons. We ate barbecue, listened to the blues on Beale Street, got freaky-deaky palm readings done, went to Graceland and maybe kissed a boy or two. We still have memories that can spark instantaneous laughter about our foolish ways. It was truly a charmed trip.
The highlight, however, was unquestionably our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is situated at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I’ve now been to the museum twice, and I have told everyone I know that if they are ever in Memphis, they must go. In fact, I would say if you are an activist, a social worker, a teacher, or anyone who is committed to the human race, you must make plans to go. It’s that good.
As is often the case when Mindy and I go to a museum, we were not moving at the same pace and this particular day was no exception. This is because I like to take it all in and really absorb it – for about a good solid hour – and then my short attention span starts to kick in and mess with my head. Mindy, on the other hand, prefers to move at the speed of a glacier (pre-global warming, mind you) and read Every. Single. Word. (Don’t even get me started on the six hours we once spent at the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum. Don’t get me wrong – I loved it. But wow. Six hours. Whew.)
About two hours in at the National Civil Rights Museum, I had run out of things to occupy my time and maintain my sanity, and I was ever-so-patiently waiting for Mindy to catch up to me. (This ever-so-patient waiting probably included a fair amount of sighing, eye rolling, and internal dialogue that sounded a lot like muttering.) I could see in the corner of my eye that Mindy was engaged in conversation with someone. Dear Lord, I thought. Who on earth is she talking to?
As it turned out, Mindy had been talking to a gentleman by the name of the Reverend Billy Kyles. She introduced me to him and explained that he knew a thing or two about this museum and had asked us to stick around for a talk he was going to give in a few minutes. Let me be the first to admit, at that point it seemed that Mindy’s slower museum pace was going to glean some benefits.
What happened next turned out to be one of the more profound experiences of my adult life. At the outset of Reverend Kyles’ talk, he explained that he is the last living witness to Dr. King’s assassination. (A note to any fact-checking readers: Jesse Jackson had been at the Lorraine Motel that day as well, but had left just minutes prior.) Now a pastor in Memphis, Reverend Kyles considered Dr. King a personal friend and feels a deep commitment to use any opportunity he can to carry his message forward.
Reverend Kyles walked our group over to a replica of the hotel room that Dr. King had stayed in, which was depicted exactly as it was the day that he was assassinated. He pointed out to each of us there that the room included empty beer cans and a dirty ash tray. He made it clear that Dr. King was not only a legend, he was a man with weaknesses of his own to overcome. (He stopped short of mentioning Dr. King’s well-documented philandering, and I imagined at the time he was probably strictly adhering to a “bro code” even 36 years after his death. There is no statute of limitations on bro code, right?)
Reverend Kyles’ message to all of us there that day was clear and compelling. It would be easy for all of us to look at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to hold him to a higher standard than one we hold for ourselves. He had a doctorate and a pulpit. He had political connections. He was one of the greatest orators not only of his own time, but possibly of all time. But Reverend Kyles cautioned us, to compare ourselves to Dr. King in this way does ourselves or our society no good whatsoever. Rather, he told us, we must all take responsibility for our part in the solution. We all have weaknesses as Dr. King did, and we all have great power within us as well. Not only must we not engage in overt racism of any sort, we also must not quietly stand by and tolerate racism on the part of others. Reverend Kyles left us with a clear message that above all else, we must be a conduit of compassion to human kind.
Mindy and I left the museum that day with lumps in our throats and a feeling of utter disbelief in our hearts. How was it that we intersected at that museum at that exact moment to have that precise experience? It was truly remarkable and at the risk of sounding dramatic, I would say it was life-changing. It seemed implausible that I – little Jenny Swearingen who grew up on a farm in the middle of Iowa – would have but one degree of separation from a man I’d spent all of my adult life admiring, a man who had died a tragic death before I was even born.
We went back to our hotel room that afternoon and I knew in my heart that the universe works in mysterious and beautiful ways. All the proof I ever needed had just happened right before my eyes.