At the age of 20 I called my mother and delivered two pieces of news one good and one bad. Mommy, I finally understand Mark Twain. I thought I did before but I didn't. But now I do. And now that I have stood ankle deep in the Mississippi River I get it. I get him on a deep and visceral level. And it is incredible!
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
And then finally: That's wonderful dear. When did you stand in the Mississippi River?
Oh, I'm in New Orleans right now and my friend Michael took us to the river...
And I babbled on and on about Mark Twain while my mother smoldered. She was caught between being upset that she was getting a phone call from me informing her that I was not only out of state, but in all places New Orleans-- and being very proud that the result of said phone call was not a call to send bail money, but rather to discuss Mark Twain and the impact of his work on our lives in American culture.
There is something that is incredibly powerful about physically touching the places and the artifacts that are the signposts of our lives, those times and places that art glorifies. And that is why memorials are so important to people. With this years Dr. King Day, I found myself rereading my diary from the six weeks that Jock and I spent in Memphis over a decade ago. Jock was working on Memphis in May the huge music and barbecue festival, and while he was connecting electric power for Chaka Khan soundcheck, I went to visit the Lorraine Motel. In its heyday, it hosted Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and the Staples Sisters. It has since ceased operation and turned into the National Civil Rights Museum.
It is a memorial to one of the saddest moments in American history, and also an opportunity to reach through time and to touch, however briefly, one of the most important voices ever encountered in American writing in oratory.
When you visit the Lorraine Motel, you walk through one of the motel rooms where a wall has been cut away to reveal the room next to it. And you look through the plexiglass at a motel room frozen in 1968. And then you walk out on a balcony, and you look at where Dr. King fell when an assassin's bullet pierced his face. Where Andrew Young searched for his pulse, where Ralph Abernathy cradled him in his arms.
And then you walked down the stairs to the balcony through a tunnel and you find yourself standing at a window in a rooming house across the street that is also part of the museum. And when you look out the window you have a clear view- a clear shot- of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Because you're standing where James Earl Ray is believed to have stood when he took a breath and pulled the trigger of his rifle trained on Dr. King.
And there really is nothing to prepare you for the experience of standing at that window. To imagine waiting, and then shouldering a rifle, and willfully, coldly taking the life of a man who preached peace, love, justice, and equality. And in that moment it challenges you to ask yourself: Which way are you going to look at the world?
You can look out from the balcony and work for change. Or are you going to stand in a rooming house window and sew destruction in your wake? Dr. King's answer was clear but he isn't the one standing at this window in 2018 and faced with that question.
Commentator Gwenyfar Rohler loves the classics, reading, and managing her family’s independent bookstore in Downtown Wilmington.
You can hear more from Gwenyfar and our other commentators at our website: WHQR.org under "Commentary"--and for newer commentaries, click on "Communique."
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