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Martin Luther King Jr.: memorials and complexity

January 19, 2009 |  8:20 am

Lorrainemotel_0119

Today there will be celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he was killed. The modest midcentury motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, with permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as King's room, preserved as it was that April day in 1968.

The hotel's improbable path the museumhood is one of the stories told in "Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory" by Owen J. Dyer and Derek H. Alderman. Published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago and distributed by University of Georgia Press, it raises questions about the complexities of memorials.

How do landmarks come to be? Which stories do they embrace and which ones are rejected? Why is a landmark placed here and not there? And, finally, how do people -- visitors, activists, passersby -- interact with memorials?

The Lorraine Motel, for example, became a destination for those seeking a connection with the past long before it was the Civil Rights Museum. Located in an increasingly blighted urban neighborhood, the motel was threatened with neglect or destruction. That it was saved by a coalition that raised enough money to open the museum is a good thing; that some of those involved may have also been motivated by the prospect of civil rights tourist dollars, or the hope of restoring Memphis' reputation, makes things complicated.

King is remembered in many ways; the authors tallied the number of public schools (122) and streets (730) named for him as of 2003. In some places, this has led to inadvertent ironies: in Selma, Ala., where many civil rights battles were fought, Martin Luther King Jr. street intersects with Jefferson Davis Avenue, named for the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Sadly, in other places, the renaming of streets has been fraught. Across the country, people argued that King belonged only in African American neighborhoods. Does locating King streets in those neighborhoods mean that his legacy speaks loudest to that community, or does it marginalize his memory? The authors recall a Chris Rock joke: "If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they're lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is 'Run.'" In Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1981, efforts to rename 9th Street after King were resisted by a white real estate developer who said his end of the street "is not related to Dr. King."  Elsewhere, businesses have changed their front doors so as not to have a King address.

As long as that worldview survives, it is a reminder that civil rights are everyone's business, that the developer is wrong -- we are all related to King. In "Civil Rights Memorials," the authors also look at parks and plaques that have been put up to the others involved in the fights of the 1960s, such as Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala., where sharply-sculpted metal dogs leap out from impassable walls.

The book takes a thoughtful approach to all the questions it examines, including tensions, in the planning of memorials, over whether the work and sacrifice of those who stood with King has been overshadowed by King himself. It includes photos to demonstrate the various ways memorials do (or don't) work. The authors end with three principles and 30 questions designed to have us think about what and why and how we create these memorials, and what they might mean to future generations.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Phil Scoville via Flickr.

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