“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Lorraine Motel (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was shot) has been converted into Memphis’s Civil Rights Museum. A path through the motel guides visitors into an interactive series of exhibits, tracking the Civil Rights Movement.
I entered a room of tables with computer screens, walls covered in photographs of civil rights leaders. A mother held a child in her lap, watching a video. The boy was confused why “the white people were mean to the black people.” I watched as his mother struggled to help him understand. After a minute, he turned in her lap, face to face, and stated: “Racism is bad and it doesn’t make sense.” The entire room looked at the child, and a quiet solidarity began to form.
A large area held a bus with only the back few rows open to black riders. As we waited to board, a teen stepped forward to help an elderly man climb off of the bus. A younger woman gave her seat to an older woman. Two children climbed into their father’s lap, to make room for another adult, a stranger, to share their seat. Together, we chose the seats in the back. Nobody wanted to touch the seats in the front.
Toward the end of the exhibits, I faced a sheet of glass, separating visitors from the balcony where the Rev. Dr. King took the bullet. On either side, rooms 306 and 307 had been preserved to look exactly as they had when he stayed at the motel. A bed. A chair. An open milk carton.
Through the sheet of glass, the balcony was strangely ordinary, simple concrete with railing. Still, it pulsed with an odd energy. Three of us reached the balcony at the same time. We moved together, complete strangers, women, one much older than I am, one much younger, different racial heritages. We clasped hands. We stood together for a long moment while the line waited patiently. Nobody spoke. The silent pulse reverberated.
I walked outside. I thought about a child’s truth, a sheet of glass. reaching for the hands of two strangers. I thought of the triangle trade, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Memphis Sanitation Strike. I closed my eyes for an instant, curious which image would appear in the forefront. Crystal clear, I found myself picturing an open milk carton.
Going forward, I’m bringing the image of that milk carton with me — open and unfinished, basic and vital, extraordinary and familiar, history and forever. When I began writing years ago, I never expected to work on an essay inspired by a milk carton. But I’m okay with it, because the Memphis Civil Rights Museum is humbling and awe-inspiring in equal parts. Bottom line, I’m not ready to “begin to end” my life, and that milk carton represents “things that matter.”
RIP Martin Luther King, Jr. And thank you.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
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