THE NIGHT OBAMA WAS ELECTED, my friend, sitting next to me at a Buenos Aires bar, almost got into a fight with an Argentine man, who loudly insisted that the Americans would kill their first black president. My friend and I drunkenly insisted that we wouldn’t — that the violent, racist America we’d been raised in was drawing to a close, and that the future was bright.
8 years and two days later, I was in Memphis, Tennessee, at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. I stood underneath the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered. And I walked through the museum with my wife, somber and depressed. We had spent the previous two days sporadically bursting into tears, and being at the site of MLK’s assassination brought what had just happened into sharp relief.
The layout of the museum moves historically, taking you from the slave trade to the Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow and the rise of the KKK, from Civil Rights to the election of Barack Obama.
The election of Obama is almost a triumphal endpoint to the museum. It’s the end of history, and is placed as a way of saying, “Look how far we’ve come!” Now, on November 10th, 2016, that progress felt further away, and the legacy of the man who had died here — right there! Right in the room through that plate glass! — did not feel as secure as it had back in that Buenos Aires bar in ’08.
The Lorraine Motel
The Lorraine Motel in Memphis has a kitschy, 1950’s look. The facade of the building still exists, and it looks more like a stop along Route 66 than an assassination site. It’s painted a shade of baby blue that hasn’t been used since the 1970’s, and giant old cars with fins are parked out front. Up on the balcony, there’s a wreath, at the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.
Back in the day, the Motel was a popular lodging place for prominent black artists and activists. This was still at the time of segregation, and the building itself was right by Stax Records, so it was a convenient spot. The owner, Walter Bailey, named it after his wife Loree. Hours after King’s assassination, Loree suffered a stroke, and she died five days later. Bailey permanently closed room 306, where King died, as a memorial, and later, the building was foreclosed upon. Bailey managed to rally a movement to convert the hotel into a memorial, and now, behind the old motel’s facade, is the museum depicting the centuries of oppression against black people in America. Bailey never lived to see the museum completed.
When Obama was elected, I have to admit to being one of the people who, at first, bought into the idea of a “post-racial” America. Racism had been my parents problem — my parents, unlike their parents, had shaken off white America’s history of bigotry, and had raised us untainted by that ugliness. I was on board with racial justice, but I was not what you would call “woke.” Until the rise of birtherism (led, of course, by by President-elect Donald Trump), I was convinced that Obama’s election had meant we’d moved on, and that whatever racism remained would simply become more and more marginalized until it eventually vanished. His election — for the briefest time — even felt like an expiation of our white guilt.
I knew, deep down, that this was naive, but I justified it, ironically, with the old Martin Luther King quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Equality, we told ourselves, was inevitable.
The Obama years did not see equality. There was Trayvon Martin, then there was Eric Garner, then there was Michael Brown and Ferguson. There was Alton Sterling, there was Philando Castile, and there was the Charleston shooting. That is not a remotely comprehensive list, and these names may well end up on the walls of a future exhibit at the Lorraine Motel.
It is totally possible they already are. My wife and I walked out of the motel — only half of the museum — and wavered. Across the street, there is the boarding house where James Earl Ray shot King from, and the museum owns that building as well. There were more exhibits, but we couldn’t handle it. That morning, my mother had found racist, pro-Trump graffiti on the playground where my nephew plays in Cincinnati. The days after the election had seen a spike in hate crimes, including some in neighborhoods I’d lived in. We walked back to our hotel, through the empty streets of Memphis.
Cincinnati, my hometown, incidentally hosts a similar museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Cincinnati was the first northern city, so it was a prominent spot along the Underground Railroad. It, like the Lorraine Motel, should be no more than a memorial. But these are buildings that we are, unfortunately, going to need to keep adding to.
This is the “long” part of the moral arc of the universe.
Over the course of the Obama administration, it slowly became clear to me that I was one of the “white moderates” Martin Luther King spoke of in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I began to notice my white friends and family members blanching against Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick, railing against their methods instead of against the violence that made their methods necessary. I heard people I know and love get far angrier at the possibility of their being called racist than they ever got at actual instances of racism. And I knew I was part of the problem.
One of the most striking images at the Lorraine Motel is after a video at the beginning of the main exhibit. It tells the story of civil rights activism in the United States, and it ends with a silhouetted video image of people marching, holding up signs of protest. The speakers play the sound of footsteps walking — not of chants and protests, but of the sound of feet hitting ground. To get to the next part of the museum, you must march with the shadows.
Martin Luther King’s mountaintop seems further away now than it did 8 years ago. The Lorraine Motel no longer feels like a finished museum. It’s time to start marching again.