America’s Deep South And The Civil Rights Trail: Travel With Curtis Chin
“Ever walked down a street, looked up, been surprised by what you saw and stopped? That just happened as I caught sight of the Lorraine Motel here in Memphis.”
So I wrote—and Tweeted—after arriving in February 2020 at the appropriately named Arrive Memphis, a new boutique hotel on South Main Street that is helping re-energise this city’s redeveloped south side, characterised by old brick buildings and former factories.
It was Day One of a whirlwind three-day trip to the American South, and I had just spotted the iconic sign of the old Lorraine Motel—site of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr on that terrible day of April 4, 1968. The building and the sign are now part of The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.
DAY ONE - MEMPHIS &MLK ON OUR MIND
With a population of 650,000, Memphis is the largest city along the Mississippi River and the second-most populous in Tennessee, after Nashville.
While the city will be forever linked to the civil rights movement, it is, however, also an American music and culinary destination. Think Memphis-style BBQ—slow-smoked pork ribs cooked in a dry rub of seasonings and crafted into a meal that’s delicious with or without the sauce.
Within two hours of arriving at the Memphis International Airport, meeting up with former colleague and event producer extraordinaire Barbara Levy to rent a car and checking into the Arrive Memphis, it was off across the street to Central BBQ in the South Main Arts District for a first delicious taste of the city.
From there, it was a few minutes’ walk to the Lorraine Motel sign, now also displaying King’s iconic words, “I have a dream.” In addition to preserving the façade of the historic Lorraine Motel, the National Civil Rights Museum offers visitors the solemn opportunity to see Room 306, where King spent his final hours. A wreath also marks the spot on the motel balcony where he was assassinated.
For much of the rest of the day, Barbara and I were immersed in the museum’s galleries, watching, reading and learning. Films, oral histories, interactive media, artefacts and exhibits tell the story of the American Civil Rights Movement, from the 17th century to the present. It is also a story of an American journey toward justice that is far from complete—as the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, following the horrific killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, would make all too clear.
DAY TWO - TO OXFORD FOR HAROLD
Barbara and I were joined now by her son Aidan and another friend and “Burson Person”, Trina Foster, at the start of Day Two for our onward journey to Oxford, Mississippi. On our agenda: a 90-minute drive that would take us through the forested rolling hills of northern Mississippi.
All of us had made this trip to attend the memorial service of a friend and mentor, Harold Burson, the late founder of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, where Barbara, Trina and I had worked for many years.
Described by PRWeek magazine as “the [20th] century’s most influential PR figure”, Harold had passed away at 98 in Memphis, where he had moved to after a storied New York career and completion of his book, The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations—part autobiography and part lessons for us all. A memorial service was to take place at the Paris-Yates Chapel at Harold’s alma mater, The University of Mississippi, founded in 1848.
Thus we all came together—from Thailand, Japan and across the United States and around the world—as the bells tolled at 2pm, on February 22, at the chapel at Ole Miss.
After the service, we gathered for a reception at the Lyceum—the only surviving building of the original five that made up the early university. A statue of James Meredith, the first African American student at Ole Miss, stands nearby as part of a Civil Rights Memorial unveiled in 2006.
“Courage,” reads one inscription depicting Meredith passing through the doorway of the campus as he was formally admitted to the university. Another inscription reads, “Opportunity.”
The events surrounding the integration of Ole Miss are some of the most important milestones of the civil rights struggle. This site, along with the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, are among more than 100 destinations important to the US civil rights movement that are featured as part of the Civil Rights Trail, extending across 15 states. All are very much worth a visit and detailed in a helpful website—civilrightstrail.com.
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Founded in 1837 and named after the British university city of Oxford, this small town of 28,000 people is also known for its literary heritage. Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner—once interviewed by a young Harold Burson—made his home here, and his Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County of literary fame were inspired by the real-life Oxford and Lafayette County.
We see this inspiration on a short evening walk from our rooms at the Oxford Graduate Hotel to the historic Oxford town square, with the Lafayette County Courthouse at its centre. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the present courthouse dates to 1872. It was built to replace a building burned down by Union troops during the US Civil War. A fictional version of the courthouse figures in the dramatic ending to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Our day in Oxford though ends with a very real and delicious Southern meal. This time, a mouth-watering Saturday night dinner of fried chicken delights us at a restaurant called Tallahatchie Gourmet on The Square. Southern hospitality is also on full display as the restaurant team keeps the place open for us.
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DAY THREE - HELLO ELVIS
Some come to Memphis for the music and a bit of “Mempho Mojo”. They either take a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland—no escaping a key photo op with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll near the entrance—or to sample the music and restaurants of historic Beale Street, another destination on the Civil Rights Trail.
Established in 1841, Beale Street became one of America’s most iconic streets and a thriving area for Black commerce and culture. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, BB King and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street, helping develop the music style known as Memphis Blues.
Other home-grown success stories include the global Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who hails from Lucy Avenue in Memphis. Those of a different generation may well know a former Mickey Mouse Club member born and raised nearby in Shelby County—Justin Timberlake.
For us though, Elvis beckoned on our way back from Oxford. Born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis would go on to make Memphis his home. In a bit of a karmic connection, Harold and Elvis (13 years later) both wound up going to LC Humes High School in North Memphis. Harold would note that he and Elvis are both in the Humes High Hall of Fame.
The self-guided tour of Elvis’s Graceland complex gives visitors the chance to explore the beautiful mansion, visit the gardens where he found peace, tour the aircraft that he travelled on, and see some of the legendary costumes, artefacts and personal mementoes from Elvis and his family.
Our visit was preceded by a stop for lunch at Uncle Lou’s Southern Kitchen—featured on The Food Net- work’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives”. On our menu? More great fried chicken. This time with a side of fried pickles. And then on the wall, a memento we left behind amid a bulletin board of business cards and handwritten messages on napkins and scraps of paper: a note from us that simply read, “Feb 23, 2020. Celebrating Harold Burson. Curtis. Barbara. Trina. Aidan.”
Three days. Two cities. We had come by plane and car to remember and honour Harold Burson. “Be kind. Be humble. Be accountable. Earn trust. Tell the truth.” These core principles we learned from Harold live on.
But it was also during this visit that we had the chance to see and learn more of that longer, unfinished journey—that of America’s pursuit of equality for all. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King, Jr once said. And I think that Harold also would have agreed.
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