As the birthplace of the blues and the home town of Elvis Presley, and in sight of the mighty Mississippi, Memphis is one of the most fascinating cities in the United States. Unfortunately, it is also where the life of Martin Luther King came to a tragic and untimely end. On 4 April 1968, only 39 years old, Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony of his hotel room.
He was visiting Memphis that year to support a long strike by the city’s refuse collectors. A first protest march, which he took part in, had ended in riots, but King continued to press for a peaceful solution. At great risk to his own life.
During a speech at the Mason Temple, headquarter of the Church of God in Christ movement, King had made it clear that his life was in danger. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he said. “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.”
They were prophetic words. The following day, he was assassinated. The site of the murder, the Lorraine Motel, has now been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is currently closed for large-scale renovation, but is due to re-open in 2014.
The National Civil Rights Museum, the temple of the Church of God in Christ and many other locations important in the fight for civil rights are included in the Heritage Tour given by guide Elaine Lee Turner. Elaine Lee Turner took part in many of the demonstrations in the 1960s and accompanied Martin Luther King on the march from Selma to Montgomery.
While in Memphis you can also visit the Slave Haven-Underground Railroad Museum. In this nineteenth-century house, built by German businessman Jacob Burkle, the fight for freedom was already underway a century before King visited the city. And in a completely different way: Burkle’s house was a safe refuge for runaway slaves who hid there before escaping along the Mississippi to the north of the US or to Canada.
A much less illustrious location in Memphis is the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the park named after him. Bedford Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. There has recently been a great deal of criticism about this prominent tribute to such a controversial figure.
By contrast, in the city center, there is a sculpture commemorating King’s final speech, called ‘I’ve been to the Mountain Top’. King’s words present a much stronger message than the racist arguments of the Ku Klux Klan, which has since become a much more marginal movement.
For more information on visiting Memphis: http://www.memphistravel.com/