Before I start my self-guided tour of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, I am urged to see a short introductory film about injustice and the worldwide struggle for equality that precedes the exhibits. I agree, reluctantly. I just want to get on with things. And then I have to wait for a few dozen listless, mostly Black high school students to gather in the viewing room before the film can start. They titter when a close-up of a veiled Muslim woman is shown on the screen, the only time a reaction is registered, and it disturbs me. I wonder if they even know what emotions the image is provoking. And, who knows how those emotions might be acted upon with some type of prejudiced behavior later on.
By the end, though, they are quiet, filing out to tour the exhibits on their own. Thoughtful, perhaps. But a moment is lost. It’s a shame, I think, that I don’t see their chaperones around.
Later, two girls from the group dash past me as I view the recreation of King’s cell when he was arrested and jailed in Birmingham. They rush as if they are late for an appointment. I have stopped to read the transcript of the phone call to his wife which President Kennedy personally arranged. The endearments are there – concern for the children and the family’s welfare and concern for publicity to make sure the arrest continues to get press attention, continues to be noticed and reported on. The two high school girls appear again, just as suddenly, headed the other way, as if exploring but not sure of where to go. They glance my way this time, talking loud enough for me to hear.
“You’re looking at your future,” quips one, gesturing towards the cell.
“As long as I can stand up,” the taller one says dryly.
No, that’s not your future. Don’t say that, I say low, under my breath.
I want to call out as they sashay away, but their backs disappear around a corner, fast, again. A moment lost. I finish reading the transcript in silence and start off towards the next exhibit, in the last direction the girls had followed. Then a voice drifts over my head.
“So what is this supposed to mean?”
The tall girl has materialized behind me, and she is peering, perplexed, through the bars and into the jail cell. This time she is alone.
I turn around and head back to her and start to explain. I tell her about King’s choice to be arrested and to make a statement in the movement. About his letter from a Birmingham jail exhorting others to keep the faith. About the significant choices we can make when we have a conscience and the belief that we can make a difference by doing something we know to be right. What surprises me is the way she stands still, not smiling or nodding, just listening.
My babbling spills out, overflowing, before I can shut it off. I stop myself, embarrassed at coming on so strong.
“Oh,” she says, nodding, eyes squinted up a little. “That’s interesting.” She is thinking.
“Well, now you know,” I say, “and you can explain to other people.”
She nods and smiles. I take that as a good sign and wave goodbye as she goes her way into another part of the museum, and I go mine.
Later, after the Civil Rights Museum visit, I recall that encounter as I sit at a fast food restaurant table with coffee and a newspaper, sorting things out, considering my next move before heading back to the hotel. I am aware of a child, about 10, passing by, trailing her mother, and my head is drawn up in her direction for some reason. Barrettes bounce from the tips of her braids as she walks and she looks at me squarely, and smiles, with mirror eyes. For a moment, in her face I see hope, and it lifts my spirits. I just hope she sees the same in mine.