"A couple of n****r traders come along, and the king sold them the n****rs reasonable, and away they went, the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans. I can't ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable n****rs hanging around each other's necks and crying."
-Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The only mention of Memphis in the book. Huck had to avoid towns traveling with a runaway slave. But this scene -- it describes Huck's dawning epiphany -- that slaves, that blacks had feelings. Just like white people.
These two days are like the quiet second movement of this trip's symphony. Shortest riding day of the trip, followed by a rest and tourist day in Memphis. (plus, a chance to catch up on all of your notes -- thank you!)
The ride into Memphis was mostly a repeat of the two previous days. My first stop at the small town Dollar General got me into the usual curiosity and "wow" reaction. The cashier came out of the store to inspect the bike and packing system :) The Huck Finn concept totally resonates.
I had my first brush with legacy Southern monuments -- a small roadside park flying the "Stars and Bars" Confederate flag with a marker: "Lincoln's call for troops to invade the South prompted Tennessee's governor to send militia here to defend the Mississippi Valley -- Lest we Forget". A few miles down the road I saw my first Confederate battle flag flying in front of a house. I'd like the opportunity to ask someone "why are you flying this flag?" I see it (and I see them in Mass and NY, not just "down here") and I think "you are a racist a**hole" -- but maybe that's unfair?
My second stop was at a general store 15 miles outside of Memphis. I had a long chat with the owner while I enjoyed my turkey melt and onion rings (turns out, he's at the edge of a forest reserve and gets lots of bike traffic). He had very strong opinions about the "anarchy" in Memphis. "3500 carjackings so far this year." (a shocking total that appears to be true) "You just be careful, and don't go out after dark". He genuinely feared for my safety.
Memphis in theory is a big-league city. 650,000 people (more than Boston). Double that in the metro area. But -- it has a small town feel. Just a handful of tall buildings, everything else low-rise. Main Street is all low-rise, complete with vintage streetcars. And -- virtually no people. I've never walked through a downtown area with less foot and car traffic, especially on a beautiful day. Even on Beale Street, the center of blues and the tourist trade. I've included enough photos to give you a sense. It really felt weird.
I had two planned stops beyond walking down Beale. I went to Fourth Bluff Park, formerly Confederate Park. In 2017, the city took an early pre-emptive move against Confederate symbols, removing the cannon and statue of Jefferson Davis. Based on the Trip Advisor comment page, the move angered many. The park had a nice view of the river, but like everywhere else, was virtually empty.
The one place where I saw many, many people was my second stop -- The Lorraine Motel, the site of MLK's assassination, and also home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Long lines, diverse group, and powerful, moving exhibits. I knew the history of course, I'd seen the movie Selma -- but seeing the raw TV coverage of peaceful protests like diner sit-ins or street marches broken up with dogs, clubs and fire hoses, the statements of governors, mayors and police chiefs to ignore the law of the land (Nullification, as John C. Calhoun described it) -- it hit me in a very visceral way. The museum closes showing a video of MLK's Mountaintop speech, given the night before he was killed.
"It doesn't really matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. 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!!"
I'm tearing up again typing this. 100% worth the trip if you find yourself in Memphis.
55 years later, Memphis still faces its challenges. The city is has a black mayor and a majority black police force, but has been torn apart by the killing of Tyre Nichols by 5 black police officers. The carjackings are emblematic of a deeper problem, and it would be easy to interpret the empty streets as people, especially tourists, voting with their feet and wallets. I didn't feel unsafe today, but I can see others turned off by the homelessness and pot smoking.
560 miles down, 315 to Vicksburg! Off to Arkansas tomorrow morning.