This morning we woke up to a freezing 4°C. Yikes!! Come to the South, they said! It’ll be warm in Spring, they said!
So we wrapped ourselves in our warmest clothes and made our way against the cutting wind to the Peabody, downtown, just in time to see the marching ducklings! The hotel lobby was already pretty crowded when we arrived. It’s a very silly thing to do, but it’s also quick and harmless fun: shortly before 11h, the Duckmaster gives a very rehearsed introductory speech about the history of the ducklings, then rides up on the elevator and comes back down with the ducks, who dutifully march down a red carpet from the elevator to the fountain at the centre of the lobby.
The Peabody is only a couple of blocks up from Beale Street, which itself is only a few blocks up from the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s really a very short walk, but it felt longer in the chilly wind!
The museum is based on the former Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on April 4, 1968. It’s an incredibly in-depth study of racial discrimination in the United States from the Declaration of Independence until King’s time and beyond. Shortly after arriving we were invited to see a short 10-minute video summarising a timeline of African-American civil rights, but after that we were left to our own devices. The museum was pretty busy today, on a Friday morning, so there were some bottlenecks here and there, but in general it was well structured and people kept moving.
The visit includes the Legacy Museum in the building across the street, formerly the boarding house from which James Earl Ray fired his rifle. I didn’t know that he succeeded in fleeing to London before the Interpol located him there.
The visit was extremely interesting and educational. It highlighted the work of individual activists and firebrands, but also the importance of bodies like the Supreme Court and shifting public opinions. There’s an entire floor dedicated entirely to the shooting of MLK -just the actual shooting- which felt like a little bit too much for me, but I loved the different screens throughout the place with bits from his speeches. Hearing his words and his passion as a master orator surrounded by evidence of the progress of the civil rights movement was very moving.
After the ducks and the museum, we walked just one block to Central BBQ for lunch. Something that shocked me today was that the whole time the streets were deserted, both of people and of cars, and yet you’d walk into the restaurant or Graceland or whatever and it’d be packed! Where were these people?! Anyway, you have to have BBQ in Memphis, so I was going to order a regular plate of meat for myself, but then I caught a glimpse of how gigantic those servings were, panicked, and ended up ordering the sandwich version instead. It was positively modest in comparison, but the meat was great, and the barbeque sauce was to die for! I gave the hot one a try as well, and it was also really good. Yum!
Post-lunch, our next priority was to visit Graceland, Elvis’ famous mansion. It’s in South Memphis, about a 20 min drive from Beale Street. At $10 for parking and a shameless $36 just to visit the mansion, Graceland is highway robbery, but it’s one of those things that you have to do when you’re here, and anyway it’s a very unique experience.
We bought the tickets in one building after parking our car, and then we had to board a shuttle to the mansion, which is in fact across the street. The tour of the mansion is self-guided, meaning they give you an iPad that plays an audio tour narrated by John Stamos (!), and also has advanced features like a 360° panoramic view of the rooms you visit, which would be nifty if I wasn’t ALREADY IN THE DAMN ROOM. Guess they have to justify flaying you for the price of admission!
The house is impeccably preserved. Everything looks like Elvis just left for a smoke and could come back at any minute. The audio tour includes recordings from Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley speaking about their own memories of the house, and played some of Elvis’ best known songs, most notably when you’re visiting the Meditation garden, where he’s buried alongside his parents and grandmother. A high point of the visit is the room with all of Elvis’ gold and platinum records, along with some of the most garish costumes; it really helps sell just how much of an icon he was in life!
We stayed in Graceland until it closed, at 5PM, and then had to decide what to do with ourselves for the rest of the day. We would have liked to attend a blues show on our last night here, but we have to drive to Nashville tomorrow and after two museums in a row we could only think of going back home and resting our feet…
But first we had to buy groceries and some supplies, so we headed to a mall for a quick shop. From the ones mentioned on my guide, I picked the one that had a bookstore, and headed there. This is where my phone decided it didn’t want to connect to the Internet anymore and it was like I was suddenly blindfolded. A city that was heretofore like an open book to me now was an impenetrable maze of roads and avenues!
The mall is a place for culture shock as much as any other… At a clothing store a clerk asked us where we were from, I said “We’re from Spain!”, and the clerk nodded and immediately peaced out without another word. Whether he went out to phone the Arizona border patrol, I’ll never know!