Sunday, August 8, 2010


Though both museums were excellent, my memory of yesterday's visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is overshadowing my experience at Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute Friday. The museums shared a similar layout: teaching exhibits emphasized more than physical artifacts, keen use of technology to tell stories throughout, and a floorplan that led visitors to an emotional and historical climax. I guess in that climax, Memphis simply trumps Birmingham. The climax of one's visit to the former is a chance to see inside the motel room Dr. King spent his last hour in (meticulously preserved). The latter's climax, an excellent window out of which to view the park, business and government district, and church that where the fulcrums of the battles there in 1963.

The emotional thrill of seeing that solemn place in the Lorraine Motel was set up perfectly by an exquisite opening documentary. A tour of the NCRM begins with a 32-minute film that is part documentary, part witness statement. The film concentrates on explaining what brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968. The primary narrative is supplied by Rev. Kyles, one of two preachers who spent an hour in Dr. King's room right before his death. (The late Ralph Abernathy was the other.) Kyles was also standing beside Dr. King when he was shot. The documentary alternates between contemporary footage, interviews, and scenes of Rev. Kyles preaching today. What amazed me about the documentary was the way in which it began with such a clear and compelling historical mission: explaining why King was in Memphis. Yet it ended as a profound, loud, and righteous statement of Christian witness by Kyles. Increasingly the language and imagery of the documentary became spiritual, wrapping the audience in the passion of a sermon or prophecy. Moving doesn't come close to describing it.

My experience in that theater and then in the hotel room exhibit made me thankful that I could understand, historically and spiritually what was happening and what had happened. I've been privileged to read about that era, teach about that era, and grow in Christian churches. I feel like my experience at an inner-city church some time ago, Triumph Baptist in North Philadelphia, helped me understand the frequency at which Kyles and the documentary were working. I hope that over the passing of the years audience members will be able to fell and experience the moment like I (and, I think, most of the visitors with me) did yesterday.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

"My Feet Are Tired"

After two days visiting some of the most solemn ground in America - Birmingham, AL and the Civil Rights Institute yesterday, the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum today - I don't know when I'll get time to write all the sites have moved me to think. But I do want to post quickly on some observations about Rosa Parks and her 1955 act of defiance that launched a civil rights revolution.

One of the National Civil Rights Museum's most powerful exhibits is a re-creation of the bus on which Rosa Parks committed her act of civil disobedience. The exhibit goes into great detail about what occurred that day. Interesting enough, the words "My feet are tired" never appear. That quote, which I don't doubt Ms. Parks said at some point, is a hallowed one in many history texts. Both sarcastic and pragmatic, it's a great snapshot for students and casual observers of that moment in history.

However, what Rosa Parks said was, I think more defiant: When asked to vacate her seat, she insisted she wouldn't because she paid her fare just like anyone else. (The "My feet are tired" line must have come in one of her countless interviews after the incident.)

Her protest was even more nuanced, and more thoughtful. Parks was sitting in a row four seats across in the middle of the bus. At the beginning of the incident, all four of those seats were occupied by black passengers. One white man boarded the bus and no seats were available. However, custom dictated that a white passenger couldn't sit in the same row as blacks, therefore all four of the passengers in Parks' row (Parks included) were expected to leave the seats. The other three did, Rosa did not.

Wow! Makes me think of a sermon I heard nearly two decades ago about what Jesus really meant by turn the other cheek: namely that custom in Palestine at His time dictated a superior could only hit an inferior with the palm of his right hand (therefore, "turning the other cheek" forced the superior to either violate custom or look foolish in hitting the inferior). Is this what Parks did just for a moment? Before surrendering her seat, was she daring the white man to sit in the row with her, implicitly acknowledging some degree of equality or fellow humanity? Was she calling out his masculinity by seeing if he would insist that four (at least three women) blacks vacate seats for him? I imagine there must have been a gleam in her eye in those first moments after she refused the bus driver's demand that she leave the seat.

One other note: black passengers were prohibited from entering the bus by the front. They had to enter the front door to pay their fare, then step off the bus, then walk along the right side to the doors about 2/3 the way to the rear. In fact, this rear door was the boundary between white and black seating. Black passengers were allowed to take seats ahead of the door if seats were not used by white customers and if the colored section was full.

The incident that happened in 1955 on that bus was more nuanced and deeper than popular memory remembers it (though memory remembers it as a powerful moment, no doubt). We often, though, in our popular memory simplify the tales, I guess so they can be more easily remembered. Heck, this post is taking a long time to flesh this out - no wonder we must simplify. But we are fortunate museums like the one I visited the last two days exist to teach those of us who want to go deeper into the richest moments from our past.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


A column from today's New York Times offers an interesting perspective on a TV show I remain somewhat addicted to, Law and Order. It's the second column in that newspaper reflecting on what the end of the series means.

I'm not saying I agree with all of this columnist's conclusions, but it's an interesting read.

Monday, August 2, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about the film The Searchers recently, perhaps because my Mom and Dad lost a dog named after a character in that film. It's on an informal list I'm keeping of films I need to watch for the 12th or 13th time along with The Godfather, Witness, and High Noon.

There are films, however, that I remember finding great but have no wish to see again. They are:

The Sixth Sense
Gran Torino

For different reasons each, these were great films. But for different reasons each, I really cannot pull from them nearly the same experience I got watching them the first time.