Ms. Cherry and the Parsonage

I had about an hour to kill in Montgomery, and decided to check out the parsonage for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This was the house Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in with his wife and kids for most of the civil rights movement. It’s an ordinary white house several blocks away from the church, the kind that would otherwise go unnoticed. The house on the corner has been turned into the visitor’s center and museum, which is where I met two older black women working behind the counter. I asked if there were any more tours today, and how long they would be (I had a prior engagement back in Prattville). One of the women said she had one more tour scheduled, but there was a very special group coming for it, and the tour might take a bit longer. “I have my regular tour, my VIP tour, and my extra special VIP tour,” she told me. “They’re getting the extra special one, so it’s going to take a full hour.” They offered to have the second woman take me through the house quickly before the group arrived if I was in a hurry, but I didn’t feel like I could turn down an opportunity for an extra special VIP tour. Especially when I realized I was talking to Ms. Cherry.

If you look up the TripAdvisor reviews for the parsonage, you will find that nearly everyone mentions the fantastic qualities of Ms Cherry. Adjectives used to describe Ms. Cherry and her teaching style include: amazing, eloquent, touching, inspiring, incredible, phenomenal, sincere, informative, comical. Nouns include: knowledge, personality, authenticity, treasure, a gift. Three different reviewers also referred to her stories as giving them “chills.” There are no negative reviewers for the Dexter Parsonage. And every word is true.

When the treasured group arrived I found out why they were so special. This was an association of teachers, and Ms. Cherry is a retired school teacher from New England. She sat us down in a small theater in the museum, where we watched a brief film. Then it was Ms. Cherry’s time to shine. She pulled out a scrap book of clippings and photos, pointing to the various civil rights leaders that came through Montgomery. She pulled framed photos off the walls and told the story of King’s life. She would be in the middle of a story when a name would come up, and she’d turn to us saying, “You know who Diane Nash is, of course.” When we responded with blank stares she would let out an exasperated exhale and launch into the story of yet another fantastic human being. Many were people she knew personally, and were people who knew Dr. King. As she went through her presentation I started to realize how much of walking museum Ms. Cherry really is. She explained to us that she was all set to settle into retirement after many happy years of teaching, when she felt a calling to work at the parsonage. She is still working because she feels that she must. She is personally preserving the lesser-known history of civil rights, and I can’t imagine what will be lost when she’s gone.

Opening the DoorAfter a lengthy, informative, and hilarious presentation, it was time to go over to the house. We walked up onto the porch and Ms. Cherry grabbed one of the teachers. He was a young man who just happened to be from Ms. Cherry’s home state, and she took a real shine to him. She pulled open the screen door and handed him a key. “You’re about to open the door that Martin Luther King Jr. opened every day,” she said. There was an impressed sound from the crowd as the man blushed with humility. There was a pause, and Ms. Cherry looked at him. “Don’t you want someone to take your picture?” she asked with a smile. We all laughed, he handed over his camera, and suddenly every camera was out to record the moment.

In the house Ms. Cherry talked about the daily life and struggles that the King family faced. She showed us remnants and marks from bricks and bombs, and explained how even when a guest was staying over, no one could sleep in the front room out of fear of what might happen in the night. She talked about the night the house was bombed while Dr. King was at a meeting arranging the famous Montgomery bus boycott. King rushed home to ensure his wife and young child were unharmed. A crowd of furious black supporters gathered outside the house, ready to erupt into violence in defense of their leader. Dr. King stood on the porch and urged peace, telling the crowd to disperse without incident. They did as he asked, and as Ms. Cherry tells it, many lives were saved that night.

The final room of the tour is the kitchen. Ms. Cherry talked about how bad things had gotten for King in his final weeks, and how dangerous his work had become. She told us how he would always send flowers to his wife back home while he was away, and she pointed to a vase of plastic carnations on the counter behind me. “The last bouquet he sent was made of plastic flowers, and when Coretta called to ask him about it, he said, ‘I wanted to give you something that would last.'” Dr. King knew the reality of the threats he faced. I had seen video of the speech he gave the night before he died, and thought it was a mysterious fluke that it seemed to contain such premonition. Now I realize it wasn’t a fluke at all. He knew what he was doing would kill him. He knew it was coming soon.

Ms. Cherry sat down at the kitchen table and told a story from a few years earlier in King’s life. It was the story of a difficult and sleepless night when the reverend came into his kitchen to be alone with his thoughts. He began to speak with God. It was the moment King said he let go of his fear of death. It was the moment he talked about in that final speech, when he said that he had been to the mountain top. Sitting in this kitchen, Dr. King found the faith and courage to continue the fight, and see it through until his end.

Ms. Cherry paused and one of the women stifled a sob. Ms. Cherry told her it was okay, to go right ahead and cry. I had been politely listening to the story without much thought, but hearing the other woman start to cry almost brought me to tears. Suddenly I was flooded with emotion, and so was the entire room. Ms. Cherry said that normally no pictures are allowed in the house, but “if we do it quickly no one will know.”

Me and Ms CherryI offered to take the photo so the entire group could be in it with Ms. Cherry, and Ms. Cherry insisted I get one with her as well. Back in the museum she gave the group leader a packet of “special materials” that she had put together just for them, but then said she’d make one for me too. Inside was more information on the house, a photo she’d taken as one of the original boycott buses drove in front of the house, and a list of qualifications to join “Ms. Cherry’s Character Club.” It’s clear that for Ms. Cherry, character is everything, and to her it’s everything Dr. King was about. She reminded us that “the measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

In trying to write an ending for this post, I asked myself how Ms. Cherry might end it. I think she might tell you to imagine a small, 1950s kitchen, painted yellow with light blue accents on the furniture. I think she would ask you to imagine a young Dr. King sitting at the table alone at night. And then I think she would repeat to you the last public words he ever spoke:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

A Pair of Kings in Memphis

Concert CrowdI hooked up with another couch surfing host in Memphis. She’s hoping to sell her house and move to Mexico soon, so the home has been emptied of most of her belongings. It gives the place a comfortingly austere quality. We grabbed dinner at the second best BBQ place in town and swapped ideologies about simple living and consumerism. She talked about why she chose Mexico, the troubles of getting her house sold, and the pushback of doing that which society doesn’t expect or endorse. I have some experience with that last one. We got along famously. After dinner she suggested we go to the park, as there was a free concert featuring an Israeli blues band, which was certainly intriguing enough to warrant the trip. The band was fantastic, playing a range of blues standards plus a few of their own.

The next morning while my host was at work I headed downtown. I parked the car and took the trolly down to the National Civil Rights Museum. I had been told by many people that I couldn’t miss the museum. It was one of the highlights of Memphis. I should bring tissues. When I arrived the ticket taker explained that there would be a short film, after which I was to go to the top floor and work my way down. The movie gave a bit of backstory regarding Martin Luther King Jr. The doors of the theater opened and I rode the elevator with the rest of the museum goers upstairs, where we are immediately hit with the assassination. There were facts about the shooter, clips from speeches Dr. King made in the weeks leading up to his death, a replica of the car the shooter was said to have escaped in, and even the gun used as evidence in the trial.

Getting my Picture TakenThe museum itself is in the building across from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was staying. They have preserved the bathroom and window they believe James Earl Ray shot from. It’s a strange feeling to stand there and look out the window toward the Lorraine, the memorial reef, and the tourists taking pictures. After going through the exhibits, including several on the possible conspiracy theories and the reasoning behind them (for it’s part, the museum tries to show the evidence without drawing any conclusions), I went outside and across the street to the Lorraine. A recording plays non-stop outside the old motel. It gives a few words regarding the details of the day of the assassination, followed by one of Dr. King’s favorite gospel performers singing a hymn in memorial. Several rooms, including the one Dr. King stayed in, have been refurbished to the time of the assassination. As a visitor you are welcome to go up the stairs to the second floor balcony and stand in the exact spot where he was shot, with your feet where the blood would have pooled. You can put your hands on the railing, look over across the street to where James Earl Ray was said to have stayed, and listen to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” on the speakers while tourists take photos of you. That is a moment to give you shivers.

Lorraine MotelWhile visiting that spot was certainly moving, I was a bit disappointed with the museum itself. It was assaultive, but not in the compelling way I had experienced at the Oklahoma City Memorial. It was more jarring and unexpected. Where was the history? Where were the exhibits about the rest of the movement? This was supposed to be a civil rights museum, so why was I only seeing material about this one event? Much later, when recounting my experience to another host, I was told that the main part of the museum is actually inside the Lorraine Motel itself, which was under construction during my visit and wasn’t open to the public. It was a bit of a relief to know that I wasn’t mistaken in my disappointment. I suppose I’ll have to return to Memphis one day to see the real thing.

The well known (but I’m told not that great) Rendevous restaurant was closed, so I headed to Beale Street for lunch. It should be noted the Beale Street, and for that matter all of Memphis, is surprisingly small. The downtown area seems to only stretch about a dozen walkable blocks, and Beale Street itself is perhaps four blocks long if you’re really pushing it. I found a reputable looking place and sat at the counter. I ordered the chicken & waffles and, upon recommendation from the waitress, a side of mac & cheese. I never know how I’m supposed to eat chicken & waffles. A fork? My hands? With syrup? With butter? It always sounds like such a good idea, but every time I try it seems like I end up confused and sticky. The mac & cheese, however, was delicious. I talked with the waitress behind the counter and she explained how she’d recently found a pair of kittens abandoned in her backyard and was trying to raise them herself, at least until they’re old enough for the shelters in town to take them. Shelters won’t take newborn kittens because they require so much extra work and bottle feeding, a fact that my waitress knew all too well. I wandered the length of Beale Street, eventually hearing music from a live performer being pumped out of one of the bars. The song was “Walking in Memphis,” and I got to experience that satisfying feeling of doing something I’d always wanted to do: listen to “Walking in Memphis” while actually walking in Memphis.

Peacock windowsI went back to my car and drove to the mighty and independently run state that is Graceland. The place is run a bit like a theme park, with different areas and attractions, and more gift shops than I’ve ever seen in one place. I personally visited at least five. Visitors are all given audio guides, and a shuttle runs from the main area over to the house. Like all of Memphis, the mansion was surprisingly small. While the furnishings inside certainly convey a sense of wealth, they also reflect the 1970s taste of a former country boy. The Jungle Room is just a living room with a hunting lodge vibe. There’s shag carpet on some of the ceilings, but the carpet itself is that same carpet you’ve seen in any number of old, refurbished basements of the time. The backyard swing set looks just like the one I grew up with. The back of the house is so ordinary you wouldn’t pick it out of a crowd. In light of the recent behaviors in over-the-top housing, as well as a personal comparison to the Hearst Castle and the Winchester House, the Mansion at Graceland is absolutely quaint.

JumpsuitsAdjacent buildings have been renovated to display The King’s many gold records and awards, as well as memorabilia from his career. It is in these areas that you get a better sense of who he was and what his life was like. There’s a real feeling that he got trapped in a movie deal he hated but couldn’t escape, and that the 1968 comeback special was one of the highlights of his career. Another building showcases his achievements in the 1970s, which I had always perceived as the dwindling of his career. When you think of Elvis fondly, you think of Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog. But when you look at the numbers, he was selling better in the 70s than at any time in his life. Several fantastic jumpsuits are on display, as well as clips from performances in those later years.

GravesiteAnd then, without transition, without fanfare, and without explanation, the voice on the audio guide simply says “Elvis Presley died of heart failure on August 16th, 1977.” It directs you outside to the gravesite, and explains that the body was moved here out of security concerns. And that’s it. There he is, next to his family members in a peaceful garden. There is no mention of drugs, weight, depression, or illness. He was an amazing man with a dazzling career who unexpectedly died of heart failure one day. And that’s all Graceland has to say about it.

I searched the gift shops looking for memorabilia from the 1969 film “The Trouble with Girls.” While widely regarded as one of his least popular and least influential films, “The Trouble with Girls” holds the important distinction of being the only Presley film that my mother was in. Her and her bandmates at the time were given small but memorable roles, and it’s always been one of my favorite facts about my family. However I had no such luck. The only pieces of merchandise they had in the shops were copies of the film itself, of which our family already owns two. My mother always said that while Elvis’s people could sometimes be a bit of a pain, the man himself was very nice. Just another musician. I related this story to a woman working at the gift shop who said it was in line with everything she’d ever heard about the man, and she’s heard quite a bit.

My last night in Memphis my host and I tried to track down some live music and eventually got together with a few other couch surfers for drinks. Before I left, she got a call from her real estate agent that they finally got an offer on the house. My host was a great woman and while I’m happy she’s following her heart, it’s sad to think I’ll probably never see her again.

W.C. HandyIf Memphis did anything, it left me with an appreciation for size. Memphis has had a huge impact on history and culture, even though the city itself feels like a small town. For Elvis, his impact got smaller as he got bigger, both physically and financially. Now his house is dwarfed by the theme park that surrounds it. The Civil Rights Museum and the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, despite their enormous influence, were temporarily reduced to only one event, one moment, one small piece of lead. And as for my host? A wonderful woman with a fantastic life and many great dreams had her entire world change with one short phone call. And now she turns to the tough task of reducing a large life down to a few things, packing them up, and walking out of Memphis.