Stepping out of Genki Sushi located in the Renton Village shopping area I pause momentarily as the chill of the evening embraces my face. Glancing around I hear the sounds of the city bustling in the distance, examine homes resting upon the eastern hilltop, and notice the heavy fog moving in, seemingly swallowing everything in its path. Over the past week this fog has made visibility difficult on several days, but what is about to happen in the upcoming week with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday recognition, and the Inauguration Ceremony honoring President Barack Obama is clear to me.
Children are thrilled to have an extra day off from school. For some that is all it meant. Some would sleep in, others might attend daycare or stay with another relative while their parents worked, television programs would broadcast information about Martin Luther King Jr. and his life or present the famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” A few employers recognize the day as a holiday and close their businesses, while other individuals may attend ceremonies featured throughout the city. The day allowed me to write, and reminiscence about the astounding power of what this week represents.
Extreme emotions surrounding this holiday commenced for me during the 1990’s. I dreamt of one day having an opportunity to visit the National Civil Rights Museum formerly known as the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee (where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.) I heard about this place since I was a child, seen the famous photographs of individuals pointing in the direction of where the shots rang from the shooter’s gun. But, what was it all about? I didn’t know. A hot August afternoon was about to introduce me to lessons I never imagined. Was I prepared for what I would see? I was unsure.
As I approached the building with family I observed several older cars parked strategically in the lot under a hotel deck, a large white wreath adorned with red ribbon hung from the upper deck. Visitors leaving pointed and exclaimed “that is where it happened.” I looked feeling honored to be here, and then I heard shouting “don’t go in there!” which snapped me back to reality and made me look in the direction it was coming from. I didn’t know who the woman yelling was, but decided to inquire as I entered the building. I learned she was Jacqueline Smith; a former Lorraine Motel employee. This individual had been sitting across from the building for 20 years protesting people supporting the museum, angry that she had been removed from the premises after having been allowed to live there for years. It was time to begin our tour. I turned the corner, stopped, stunned into silence at what was greeting me. There was no way I was prepared for this.
Standing 5ft 3inches myself I felt like I had instantaneously shrunk. Present before me at approximately 7-8 feet in an enclosed glass case was a Klu Klux Klansman (KKK) outfit. White, bold, with slanted eyes, the appearance looked evil. I looked back sans blinking, hesitant to move. Searching my thoughts I wondered what it must have been like for those that faced this outfit during their lifetime in a different capacity. I walked up and read the description of how a woman had found the outfit in her grandfather’s home after he died. She decided to donate it to the museum. What next? I inhaled and walked on.
Despite residing in Renton, and knowing things had changed much over time- I felt fear in this moment. The dim lighting in the museum aided in transporting me back to another time period that I didn’t want to live in. But, I was there and as I moved further through the building everything became more real. I listened to fascinating stories, looked at artwork depicting attacks colored individuals experienced from the 17th century to the present, and then there was a giant yellow school bus. What was this all about, I could only guess.
I climbed aboard and began looking around. It was so real including a model of a Caucasian driver strategically placed behind the wheel; I ran my finger across his form amazed, at how much attention was being placed in the exhibit details. Looking overhead I saw signs stating “white only,” and in the back half there was another sign saying “for colored.” Then, a booming loud voice came over a speaker in the bus. It said “go to the back of the bus.” The other guests on the bus all began looking at each other. I stared at them. The sound came again “go to the back of the bus.” Then it became robotic, yelling at everyone within earshot. Since the only way off the bus was through the back, we all moved in that direction. I will never forget the loudness, and even as I stepped off the bus-the words echoed in my head.
The next couple of hours were spent seeing room 306 where Martin Luther King Jr. received his last meal; everything remained as it had been on that day in place to get the actual experience. We crossed the street to see the location where the accused shooter was housed. I learned more historical facts about this time period and saw incredible displays. That day I left carrying my backpack with a load of knowledge and emotions resting in it. This backpack returned to Renton with me, and I knew when given the opportunity to visit the museum again I would.
Two years later, I revisited the National Civil Rights museum, and what I was reminded of is things change. When you believe you have seen it all and taken away all knowledge from a situation, there are consistently new things to learn. This time I had the opportunity to share the experience with my youngest daughter, and young cousin. I watched in amazement as their eyes embraced their surroundings, taking in all that was being offered. New displays were evident, and as I rounded the corner preparing myself to step on the yellow bus once more with my child, I noticed something different. A statue of a woman was propped on the bus with a hat resting upon her head. I climbed the stairs, ready for the loudness of the voice to begin. Waiting I watched as the children looked around, but there was no sound. Instead, sitting on the bus this day was Rosa Parks. The feeling of a savior riding on this bus embraced me, and as I made my way towards her figure, I sat down. Resting momentarily, I could only think what a pleasurable imaginary ride it was to be sharing this commute with an individual who refused to be treated in a manner less than respectful because of the color of her skin. In a strange way, I knew the backpack I would return to Renton with this time would be filled with a plethora of pride.
Now, as I watch the television stations repeat the Inauguration ceremony throughout the week I see much. I see obstacles that have been overcome, challenges that have been fulfilled, races that have been won, and struggles which continue. While many remain on opposing sides of political opinions- I don’t care. That is a personal choice. As I glance at the many individuals standing on the grounds of the White House looking upward, hanging on to every word our president speaks I see hope in their faces. As I see hands pointed in a prayerful symbolic gesture, as I watch various races embrace, I see love. As I sit in silence I see what Martin Luther King Jr. started, and what President Barack Obama continues. I see a symbol representing doors being opened to all individuals.