The National Civil Rights Museum is a crash course in civil
rights history. Exhibits tell us about slaves in the English
colonies and abolitionist John Brown's call for slaves to gain
"their liberty in any way they could." We learn about Jim Crow
laws, race riots in the early 20th century, the founding of the
NAACP, the rise of the Nation of Islam, poll taxes, Freedom Rides,
and voter registration drives. We ride on buses and stand in jail
cells. At the end, we come to Room 306, where, on the balcony
outside, King was shot. Visitors can't go inside the room, but a
large window reveals a re-creation of it on the day King was
murdered. Remnants of a meal - coffee, milk, and a plate of catfish
- are on a stool between the beds. A lamp is on. There are
cigarettes in an ashtray.
We stand there, staring into the room, while the recorded voice of
Mahalia Jackson sings a heart-wrenching version of "Precious
I wonder what Sam is thinking. In school, when allowed to read
books of his choosing, he invariably selects something having to do
with civil rights. The Watsons Go to Birmingham, for
example. Or Nightjohn, a book about slavery. Or King
biographies. I once asked him why he was so interested in the
subject, and his answer was at once unsatisfying and pure.
"I don't know," he said, shrugging, an explanation that could as
easily apply to why a person becomes interested in stamp
collecting. "I guess I just am."
He had wanted to see some of the places he had read about. So here
we were, in Memphis.
Walking to the car, I ask his impressions of the museum.
"Amazing," he says.
"I didn't know about the lunchroom sit-ins," he says, "or the
deaths of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia,
Mississippi, or that the reason King came to Memphis was to help
improve the plight of sanitation workers.