Another fellow traveler from the Sartre conference has posted a blog entry about his time in Memphis, and it almost feels like he and I visited different cities. Here's the reason: I spent most of my time either at panels (including his paper) or thinking about defending my dissertation, because I had just found out about the tentative date for the defense right before I left for Memphis. So I envy the apparently two-three hour span he spent wandering around the city between conference events, because he really had a chance to let the city lull in his experience, whereas I was pretty much running around the whole time. I recommend reading his piece here. I took in some of the sights, and I can picture them in his description. I just wish I would have had a clearer head to take them in.
He describes in great detail the sense of disorientation that the National Civil Rights Museum can produce:
I heard my mind say: "What an odd place for a shitty motel." But instantly, of course it hit me. Of course I knew that they'd preserved the facade of the motel Martin Luther King Jr. was staying at when he was murdered. And of course I'd seen that very motel countless times before. Of course I knew exactly where he'd been standing when he was shot without having to see the large memorial wreath hanging from the wrought iron balustrade.The author goes on to describe the fact that we often view history as something detached from our own world (think of most of Washington D.C.'s 'founding father' architecture here), which explains some of the cognitive dissonance the facade of the Lorraine Motel produces. But it's a striking reminder that history is made in precisely many of these countless places, not in buildings with Doric columns.
My mind had been thinking it had seen countless motels just like that one before. I have no idea how many motels I've stayed in just like that.
Yet what struck me was that for many in the South at the time, 1968 may have been the high tide of historical opportunity, whereas today something like the Lorraine Motel facade/NCR Museum might be less the site of what has been accomplished than it is a reminder of how much remains to be done.