RICHMOND — We're a week away from Martin Luther King Day. It's a day when Americans might consider a pilgrimage to the civil rights museum in Memphis, Tenn., rather than a trip to New Hampshire to hear a politician speak. Memphis, a city that manages to be both shabby and elegant at the same time, is where we saw, years ago, an exhibition of the famed Chinese warriors, ate what ranks among the nation's top barbecued ribs, watched the ducks parade out of the elevator at the Peabody Hotel and saw a moving reproduction of Rosa Parks' famous seat on a bus.
We also stayed from sunset until after dark in a small park at the foot of Beale Street where homeless people, a girl who had just bought a new fish for her aquarium, a couple of men drinking from brown paper bags and some inconspicuous people like us listened to some marvelous jazz from a pick-up, no-name group that may well have played until dawn.
While we did spend a dinner and a lunch gorging on Memphis' famous barbecued ribs, our greatest concentration was on the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. His car is still parked outside. The museum also has the original lunch counter where African-Americans asserted their right to be served alongside whites, with life-size three dimensional figures of blacks and their hecklers. And you can get on the bus and sit right behind the life-size Rosa Parks, whose refusal to get out of her seat sparked a furor. You might ponder who was sitting behind or beside her on that fateful day when she was ordered to stand up and move.
Running through Feb. 25 is a special exhibit called Cultural Heroes. It features seven artists who were key players in the civil rights movement: Marian Anderson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and Josh White.
Anyone who fails to have at least one teary moment in this museum has a stone for a heart. The Martin Luther King quotes and speeches abound, of course. Given the continual messages of hate that have become an intrinsic part of today's presidential campaign, some of the candidates would do well to absorb a few of MLK's thoughts. Consider:
I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.
That old law about "an eye for an eye" leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing.
We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
It's easy for critics to find flaws in King's character — as he himself said, there's negative stuff in all of us — but his 20th century place in civil rights history would be hard to impeach. And we can only imagine what he would say about the hate-inciting rhetoric of the present presidential campaign.
The more I read and think about what he tried to do – and the things he did accomplish – the more I regret the small joke I played on my elementary school daughter when she asked me why she had a Monday off from school.
"It's in honor of your father's birthday (January 15)," I told her. So when the teacher asked the class about the upcoming holiday, that's what our daughter told her classmates. She came home embarrassed by their laughter and quite annoyed with me.