Memphis: Civil Rights, Blues, and the King
Memphis is a city with a lot of hallowed ground. Besides Graceland, the estate of Elvis Presley, it has the Lorraine Motel, which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. This is the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
While I was there, an extraordinary thing happened. After I went through the museum and stepped outside, a rainbow appeared above the building, pointing right down toward the wreath that marks where MLK stood on the balcony that fateful day. My breath caught in my throat, and I grabbed my camera to commemorate the moment.
Memphis also has a new Martin Luther King, Jr. Reflection Park near Beale Street. Installed in 2018 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, the lovely park includes markers telling visitors about his legacy.
Other hallowed ground in Memphis includes the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. This is a lesser-known spot in the city that shouldn’t be missed. The antebellum house where the museum is located was a way station on the Underground Railroad. The basement still has its original floor, so I held my heart reverently as I stood where runaway slaves sometimes waited as long as three weeks to crawl through a small hole to freedom.
You’re given a guided tour through the diminutive museum, which provides quite an education about our nation’s history of slavery. It was particularly timely for me since I’d just seen the new film about Harriet Tubman.
Of course, the music history in Memphis is among the most impressive in the country. At Sun Studio, you can tour the place that claims to be the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s where Elvis got his start, and many others like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and B.B. King recorded there under the tutelage of Sam Phillips.
A fairly recent acquisition at Sun is the actual radio studiobooth from which Elvis’ debut single, “That’s All Right,” was played by the famous DJ Dewey Phillips. We were treated to a recording of Dewey’s introduction to the first spin of the record, after which Dewey received so many phone calls that he played the song 14 times that day and summoned Elvis into the studio for an interview. According to our tour guide, when Bob Dylan visited Sun, he went to the spot where Elvis stood to record “That’s All Right” (an “X” marks that spot) and kissed the floor.
Speaking of Elvis, there’s a famous statue of him in downtown Memphis, and next to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, you’ll find the Lansky Brothers shop. Lansky’s made clothes for Elvis, and the store still sells the same kind of (now retro) designs, which you can buy and wear – everything from sequined jackets to what look like bowling shirts. These are the kinds of clothes Elvis wore early in his career. If you want a 70s-style jumpsuit, you’ll have to spend close to $2,000 at the Graceland gift shop.
And speaking of Graceland, it’s a kick to visit. The house itself is relatively small and modest compared to Hollywood mansions, but the grounds aren’t modest at all. There’s a stable, a hangar for his private planes (one of which is named after his daughter Lisa Marie), a theater, and several buildings that house memorabilia.
The house itself is actually just a small portion of the tour, although it’s certainly fascinating. I especially loved the living room with its stained glass peacocks and white piano. Visitors aren’t allowed upstairs in the house since Elvis never invited guests up there, but his desk has been moved down and put on display behind glass. Also on display are his wedding tux and Priscilla’s wedding dress, among numerous other artifacts from his life.
In another building, you’ll find his gold records and more of his costumes than you can count, including many of his jumpsuits and his iconic black leather outfit from his 1968 TV “comeback” special.
My favorite part of Graceland, however, was the building that houses his cars, boats, and other vehicles, including a dune buggy, golf carts, and motorcycles. Here, you’ll see his famous pink Cadillac, a bright red convertible, and countless other gorgeous cars in mint condition. It’s a fabulous collection that might convince a reluctant male tourist to visit Graceland after all.
Just a little more than three years ago, Graceland opened The Guest House, a 450-room hotel near the grounds of Graceland. The décor was personally overseen by Priscilla Presley, although you won’t find Elvis’ mug all over the place like on the estate grounds. The design is decidedly retro chic but tasteful. The light fixtures in the hallways have a subtle EP design under the lights, and some of the chairs in the lobby have a curved back with a point, which is reminiscent of the collars of Elvis’ classic jumpsuits.
Never forget, though, that there was a lot of music in Memphis before Elvis was a glint in anyone’s eye. The city has a W.C. Handy Park dedicated to the blues legend, and the Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum celebrate the roots of music. At the latter, which was created by the Smithsonian Institution, you’ll learn about how the blues began in sharecropper fields and how rock music then evolved from that.It’s a fascinating history not to be missed.
Meanwhile, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of Stax Records(the “other Motown”) from the late 50s to the 70s. It included among its talent the likes of Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Jean Knight, Isaac Hayes, Ike & Tina Turner, and the Bar-Kays. You’ll hear lots of music and see many artifacts here.
Of course, no visit to Memphis is complete without spending some time on Beale Street. There are many places to catch some local music, but I particularly liked B.B. King’s Blues Club and Silky O’Sullivan’s. Both places also have some great southern food, but I also loved the BBQ at Central BBQ, a casual joint with several locations. I ate at the one near the National Civil Rights Museum.
There aren’t many true luxury hotels in Memphis, although The Guest House at Graceland is a 4-star property, but The Peabody Hotel is the city’s most well-known historic luxury hotel with 4.5 stars. Opened in 1869, it’s famous for its ducks. People enter the hotel for the 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. march of live ducks to and from the hotel’s fountain. They’re led by an actual “Duckmaster” in a tradition that is now almost 90 years old.
I stayed at the centrally located Hotel Napoleon, which is a 3-star property, although I have no idea why. It’s the only 3-star hotel where I’ve been given not just a plush bathrobe, but also slippers. Gloria Steinem and John Legend stayed there recently when they received accolades at the National Civil Rights Institute, so it’s far from a shabby place to lay your head. I would be happy to sleep there again.
If you want even more music, Civil Rights, and Civil War history, one of the benefits of Memphis’ location is that you’re a hop, skip, and a jump from Mississippi and the Delta Blues Trail. I recommend combining these into an unforgettable trip.
Memphis is so rich in both painful and celebratory American history that I had moments when I was moved to tears and other moments when I felt exhilarated, especially when hearing some of the music I’ve always loved – music that was created in the very town where I stood.
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