BLACKATLAS.COM - MEMPHIS
On the night of April 4,
1968 I walked into the kitchen of my family’s Brooklyn apartment and joined my
mother as she sat in front of a black & white TV with tears in her eyes.
Together we watched the a news broadcast about the assassination of Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Thankfully that isn’t the
only memory of Memphis from my childhood.
My mother loved to give Saturday night parties at our place. Being
somewhat precocious I’d go over to her Motorola hi-fi player and look at the
singles stacked up on the record changer. As they hit the turntable and the
needles found the groove, I’d see that so many of them had light blue labels
with black lettering and a finger snapping logo. The artists would be Otis
Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MGs or the
Bar-Kays. All of them recorded for
Stax Records, which was based in Memphis.
So, for me, Memphis has
always had a mystique, both as a place of profound tragedy and great pleasure.
What’s remarkable about Memphis today is that it has embraced its crucial role
in American history and made it accessible for us today and for generations to
come. I’ve made two recent trips down there: one was for business, where I got
a chance to roam around; and the other was a birthday present to my 73 year old
mother. I felt Memphis was so much a part of African-American, and of our
family’s history, that it would be sweet to share a tour around town with us.
As a bonus my 20 year old niece, Amber, came along, making it three generations
of my family that would walk through Memphis.
The beauty of Memphis for
visitors is that the city has done an admirable job of institutionalizing its
past. Now you can go to Graceland if you like (I kinda feel about Elvis the
same as Chuck D), but there are more than enough black themed culture to keep
One of the first things I
did in Memphis was sit down by the Mississippi River. If you did not grow up in
an area adjacent to the Mississippi, it’s a real treat to sit down one of the
many benches that overlook the mighty river and take its his side and power.
The Mississippi was, for most of our nation’s history, the heartbeat of
America, moving people and cargo North and South. For much of the 20th
century Memphis was a black Mecca that brought folks up from the farms of the
deep South to opportunities of this city and so many of those folks traveled by
Just a few blocks from the
Mississippi is Beale Street, which was once the spiritual home of black Memphis,
a place full of businesses, restaurants and nightlife. In the ‘60s urban
renewal brought an end to that era and, for a few decades, Beale languished as
an historical footnote. Today it is a lively tourist strip that has music
pouring out of spots like B.B. King’s, on the corner of Beale and South 2nd
Street, and from the many local bands that play outside. (B.B., by the way,
stands for Blues Boy, a nickname he picked up when he began his career in
Memphis playing on the legendary black oriented radio station WDIA.)
W.C. Handy, the father of
the blues is well represented on Beale. First there is a public park named
after the composer/trumpeter/band leader, which features a very imposing statue
around which all manner of people hang out and drink out of Beale’s notoriously
large beer cups. For those seeking
a deeper understanding of Handy’s contribution to American music the W.C. Handy
Museum (352 Beale St.) is farther down on Beale.
One of the unique features
of this avenue now are the Beale Street Flippers. It’s a collective of bold,
fearless black teenagers who, for money and love, back flip down Beale’s cobble
stone streets on a daily basis. Those of you who may have caught them this
summer of ‘America’s Got Talent,’ only got a taste of the athletic ability and
showmanship of these young men.
The Flippers are one of the only things that the hard drinking folks who
traffic on Memphis will stop to pay attention to.
There are a number of
great museums in Memphis. The Smithsonian’s Museum of Rock & Soul, which is
just two blocks from Beale, does a great job capturing how the migration of
Southern blacks and whites to Memphis helped birth rock & roll and soul
music. But when I think of Memphis and black culture there are two must see
spots for any black traveler.
So I took my mother and
niece to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is partially located in the
Lorraine Motel, where King was shot, and partially across the street in the
building James Earl Ray fired upon. So clearly this is not a frivolous trip. My
mother, niece and I started outside, looking up at the infamous two floor
balcony. Once inside the Civil
Rights Museum is designed so that you walk through the entire history of the
civil rights struggle, slowly ascending through Montgomery and Selma, past Rosa
Parks’ defiance on that bus, to the Freedom Rides, and, finally, to the Memphis
garbage man’s strike that brought King to Memphis in the spring of ’68.
There are few things more
moving than to walk into the exhibit where, behind glass, you see the rooms
that King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and the others shared at the Lorraine.
You can look out at the balcony and see where King died. In fact a square has
been carved out which was, apparently, stained with his blood. It was quite a
powerful moment to be there with my mother, remembering back to the night it
happened and the million conversations we’ve had about civil rights and blacks
folks since then. My niece was very quiet during our walk through. I was so
glad she was able to get a deeper insight into our shared history.
That’s all in the first
building. Walking through it is an
experience so emotional for some people that they could end their tour there.
The second building, which deals with King’s assassination and its aftermath,
is very different experience. In large part because its so painful and
frustrating to follow the trail of his assassin. James Earl Ray’s stalking of
King is well documented, as are the many conspiracy theories as to whether the
man worked alone or was helped by others. All these years later this wing of
the museum makes you wonder, if we really know all that was behind King’s
The flip side of the black
‘60s can be found at the Stax National Museum of Soul. There are two aspects to
the Stax location. One part of it is a musical school, which trains a new
generation of young Memphians to play instruments. So, instead of just looking
back, the facility is very involved with moving the culture forward.
But the draw for any
visitor is still the history. For any fan of the “Memphis soul stew” that came
out of Stax this is a heavenly journey. There’s a film. There’s lots of
installations that play TV and music clips. Crazy costumes and platform shoes
are on display. In the Hall of Records there are 912 45rpm singles and 292
albums line the walls. The tour ends with the late Isaac Hayes’ gold plated
Cadillac that contained working phone and television back in the ‘70s. The gift
shop has great Stax tee’s and every Southern soul CD or DVD your heart desires.
After all that history
your gonna be quite hungry. What you’ll find in Memphis is that every
restaurant in town claims to have the best bar-b-q and sauce. You can’t go
wrong by playing it safe and stopping by one of the Neely’s two Memphis locations
(5700 Mt. Moriah & 670 Jefferson). This clan of cooks have become national
celebrities via their show on the Food Channel and its well earned, both
because of their inspirational story and the quality of their food.
There are two other spots
I’d recommend in Memphis. The Beauty Shop (966 South Cooper) is in the artsy
Cooper-Young Historic District of Memphis and is located on the site of an old
beauty shop, so the old dryers and many of the other fixtures are part of the
motif. For Memphis the menu is relatively light. My family and I enjoyed the
fried chicken and watermelon meal.
One of the most famous
soul food restaurants in Memphis is the Four Way Grill, which is located in the
Soulsville section of town. Rev. Jesse Jackson and others associated with the
civil rights movement still stop by when they are in town. The fish and the
deserts will fill you up quite nicely.
I don’t want to give the
impression that Memphis is a place just obsessed with its past. There is a very
lively hip hop and neo-soul scene. Unlike a lot of cities, who are not
producing gifted young musicians, kids from Memphis can play and play well. The
best reference point for young Memphis soul is a web site called
www.neo-soulville.com, which is the brainchild of local singer Tonya Dyson. To
see Tonya, another local groups, run by Café Soul (492 South Main Street) when
you hit town.
I think that Memphis,
because of its well-maintained black history museums and hearty food, is really
great family destination, a place that will both fill your mind your belly.
MEMPHIS TID BITS:
Its very tempting for any
music fan to wanna run by Hi Records studio, where Al Green recorded, but the
area is very unfriendly, so skip that. Instead you should go out to Reverend
Green’s church to catch the great singer behind the pulpit… If you wanna a
catch a glimpse of a quirky Memphis tradition go by the Peabody Hotel for where
ducks walk off an elevator into a lobby fountain and then back into the
elevator in the morning and afternoon. Its certainly not for everyone, but
you’ll be surprised how packed the velvet rope gets for people who wanna see
how these well heeled ducks live.
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