Duluth bus rolls to a stop in Memphis
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A delegation of 34 Duluthians making its way to the opening of a national lynching memorial this week reached one of the South's blues and barbecue meccas on an overcast Wednesday afternoon.
But its purpose wasn't to party or fill faces.
Moving slowly, the bus fit like toothpaste through the narrow Memphis streets, squeezing through downtown until settling in front of a destination that left some teary-eyed and others dumbstruck.
It was the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A circular bouquet of flowers marked the second-floor scene.
"I can't speak," said retired pastor David Tryggestad of Duluth. "April 4, 1968. I remember it well. I'd been out with my girlfriend and another friend of ours. We had pizza. We heard it on the radio in the car. Horrible."
Around him, others took in the scene, which is now memorialized as part of the National Civil Rights Museum which encompasses it.
Sharon Witherspoon, widow, mother of 10 and grandmother and caretaker to many others in her Duluth home, marveled at the scene.
"I'm twinkling right here," she said, dabbing the corner of her eye. "I've only ever seen it in pictures. I'm getting emotional. There's something in the air we're breathing here."
The 50th anniversary of King's assassination was marked on street flags and T-shirts inside the museum, which takes observers through United States' civil rights history in chronological fashion — from slavery to modern day hurdles still to overcome. Case in point: A demonstrator outside the museum condemned the long ago repurposing of the motel, saying the gentrified neighborhood surrounding the museum has left no room for the black people who used to live there.
Carl Huber, a financial aid counselor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, left Memphis after graduating from high school in 1982.
"It was all desolation," he said of a downtown revived in the years since on the strength of the museum, a vibrant blues music and nightclub scene and other attractions.
Tryggestad was happy to be able to view the balcony with wizened eyes. A native of St. Paul, he spent 25 years as a pastor in Duluth — the last 16 years of his career at Concordia Lutheran Church in Woodland.
"I was self-absorbed," he said of living through the civil rights movement in the 1960s. "I graduated in 1968 and just turned 18. I was in love with my girlfriend and thinking about college. I was so oblivious."
The path of the bullet that killed King crosses Mulberry Street. It's there that the museum features a wing telling the other half of the fateful assassination scene. Behind a floor-to-ceiling sheet of plexiglass lies a dingy bathroom — the window where the gunman was alleged to have fired still cracked open.
"That's the window right there?" asked Henry Banks, founder of Duluth's Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial on East First Street. "Ai-yi-yi. Oh dear God. It could be done from here, yes."
Back on the bus, the delegation serenaded Banks with a rousing rendition of the happy birthday song. As it did so, the bus pointed through lush green and rolling countryside on its way to Alabama — first Birmingham and then Montgomery by midnight.
In Birmingham, the delegation was set to stop at the park where King was arrested for protesting the city's rigid and degrading segregation. From a Birmingham jail he wrote his famous appeal to the city's clergy — a blistering letter arguing against their support of the status quo. Tired of being told by his fellow clergymen to wait for progress, King unfurled a condemnation of Jim Crow laws and vowed to make desegregation the way of the land.
"Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability," King wrote, saying the action of man was required.
With the letter glowing on a nearby cell phone screen, the bus rolled on.
Read "Duluth to Montgomery"
The News Tribune and duluthnewstribune.com will feature exclusive content through Sunday as we follow the Duluth group's bus trip to see the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The trip is sponsored by Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Inc. of Duluth. The Duluth News Tribune bought its own seat on the bus, so that readers could be a part of the events through newspaper journalism.