Blog by: Hunter Seidler ’22, Jamari Washington ’22 and Hayden Kammer ’24

Hunter Seidler stops to read inside the exhibit “A CULTURE OF RESISTANCE: Slavery in America 1619–1861.” This exhibit offers a graphic representation of the global impact of slavery.

We arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, on Saturday, greeted by the solemn facade of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. We first had the opportunity to support local Black artists at the museum by attending a poetry slam titled, “Two Sides of Every Story.” The performance featured a poetic interpretation of two artists’ journeys to overcome trauma. Poets Writeous Soul and Queat Harris share their stories of how they overcame near-fatal car accidents, revealing along the way that the real struggle is just living. This performance was powerful and brought many of us to tears — some of laughter from the comedic aspects and some of empathic sadness from their vivid imagery.

After checking into our hotel, a group of students went to Beale Street to experience Memphis nightlife. As we took in the neon landscape and the roar of live renditions of Sam Cooke and B.B. King, we came to appreciate the powerful connections to Black culture the city’s most vibrant avenue possessed. As we explored and talked to locals, the culture’s influence only became clearer.

The next day, we woke up and returned back to the National Civil Rights Museum to explore the exhibits, which inspired a whirlwind of emotions. We learned far more about the Civil Rights Movement through interactive displays, old artifacts, and astonishing statistics. One of the most powerful moments of the tour was viewing Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was checked in before he was fatally shot. Even more chilling was our trip across the street to the very building where King’s killer, James Earl Ray, pulled the trigger that fateful day. Though much of the building has been remodeled to house the museum’s exhibits, the bathroom and the window from which Ray aimed his rifle remains intact, encased in glass walls. It’s a deeply disturbing sight, and the entire experience is surely one none of us will forget. We recognize the sheer gravity of what happened in the very spots we stood mere steps from at the Museum; the effects forever altered the course of the fight for civil rights in America.

After the museum visit we had some downtime, so the big group split off into three smaller ones. One particular group of students went to get some local soul food. This group dined at a local Black-owned business and got to experience firsthand how tight knit the Black community is. Many people kept coming in and out just chatting with the owners, sharing anecdotes and jokes. One man spoke of how the restaurant’s owner used to serve children at his school down the road over a decade ago, and they had been friends ever since. Overall, the atmosphere was incredibly positive and wholesome.

Following a 1960 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in bus and train terminals, the Congress of Racial Equality initiated a new Freedom Ride in 1961.

After we had our exploration of the city, we all met at the “I am a MAN” plaza, a commonly-used phrase during the Civil Rights Movement. We learned that it was a statement of independence under oppression, and that just made things much more powerful for us. Men are still told to bottle up their emotions, not to cry, and to be strong. Declaring “I am a MAN” makes us feel powerful and strong, but also reminds us we are only human and it’s OK to be weak.

We then moved on to our final Memphis event, a meeting with with Virginia Murphy of Playback Memphis. The organization is made up of rehabilitated felons, as well as Memphis police officers, who perform theatrical improv. We watched a short documentary on the journey that both officers and felons took as they sought to better understand their counterparts, figure out how they can improve, and also find peace within themselves. This experience was quite powerful and opened up an insightful discussion about police brutality, intersectionality, and how we use theatre as a medium to understand each other.

Memphis served as a perfect beginning to this immersion trip. We certainly became immersed in the rich culture of Memphis’s Black community and the extraordinary history of the Civil Rights Movement through exploration of the city and the extensive archives of the National Civil Rights Museum. This is an experience that truly made us appreciate the magnitude of the Movement beyond what we read in the classroom. If these coming days are anything like our first weekend, this trip will truly be life-changing.