Graceland vs. Civil Rights Museum

United States culture is wonderful and strange and, at times, disappointing. As a people, we are inviting, caring, helpful, friendly to not only family and friends, but also those we don’t know. But we as a people can also be dismissive, ignorant, unkind and uncaring. Case in point: one of our baseball trips when we visited Memphis, Tennessee, the location of both Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Graceland is the home of Elvis Presley (we use the present tense here because he is buried there and some folks believe he still haunts the place). The National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel, the location of the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These two places seem to be the bookends of our US heritage and culture.

We were in Memphis to see the Redbirds, the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, and as usual wanted to see the sights we thought were most important, or at least the most intriguing to us. Since Dan really likes Elvis and Graceland is a wildly important piece of music heritage, Ginny agreed, although she is no Presley fan. Both of us, though, agreed that we needed to see the National Civil Rights Museum, an even more vastly important piece of US heritage. So, in the morning, we showed up early to Graceland, bought our tickets and stood in the cue for the bus to take us across the street to the house. While we waded patiently through the snaked line, we heard people speaking in excited, almost whispered tones, recounting Elvis’ life and exploits and how much they loved this song or that movie. One woman behind us actually gasped out that this was her 37th time at Graceland. We looked at one another with horror: 37 times? Had she no life? Halfway through the line, the exploiters—we mean, the operators of the tours had set up a photo opportunity for everyone coming for the tour. A life-size picture of the gates of Graceland had been stretched over one whole wall of the waiting area. When we had made our way up to the wall, we were asked if we’d like our pictures taken at the gates (the gates to heaven, as it seemed some people were thinking). We could later buy our pictures for a “reasonable” price after returning to the tour headquarters. Of course, we said yes. After all, we’d had our picture taken with an alligator in Florida. This wasn’t much different.

While we stood in line, as if waiting for the next roller coaster ride, we counted the number of people sharing our wait. We extrapolated to the amount of tours given in a day and came up with the estimated number of people going through the place: 3000 a day. Of course, this was summer, the height of the tourist season. Numbers would be smaller in the off-season. But still—that’s a lot of people (500,000-600,000 a year, according to their official website).

The tour itself was interesting. Even Ginny admitted it kept her attention, although she groused about the cost. We had a personal audio-guided tour (that’s the recording and headphones) through the first floor of the house, maintained exactly like it was when Elvis died (the second floor is off limits) and the back part of the structure containing a museum of artifacts from his recording and performing days. Several of his wild costumes from his later years round out the displays. Finally, several yards away at the side of the house are the burial plots of Elvis, his mother, father and grandmother. It is a beautiful area, peaceful and solemn, as any cemetery should be. Tourists milled about, taking pictures, speaking softly, or sitting on the stone benches on the other side of the water fountain that adorns the area.

Afterwards, we boarded the bus and returned to the headquarters, where we could conveniently browse the gift shop. All sorts of Elvis paraphernalia can be had there, at a price. But no trip is complete without a purchase for friends or relatives. We bought a beach towel with Elvis’s likeness for friends. We also availed ourselves of one of the many Graceland restaurants, where we had sandwiches and got to watch the (then) newest music videos featuring Lisa Marie, Elvis’ daughter. Ginny was not impressed.

Then we were off to find the National Civil Rights Museum. Earlier in the day when we were headed for Graceland, there was no way anyone could miss the exits and turns for that place. Huge signs on the interstate and at intersections made things so easy, a first grader who could read could find the place. Not so with the Civil Rights Museum. We thought that it being so very important to our national history, signs would abound pointing the way. Were we wrong. We had a map of sorts, the kind that comes with a motel room, one advertising all the local restaurants, merchants and sites that the printers think might be interesting to tourists. They aren’t the most reliable and this one lived up to those standards. It pointed us in the general direction and then we had to rely on signs, of which there were very few and far between. When we did manage to find the museum, we drove into a parking lot that was almost totally deserted. Inside the museum, we saw that we were only two of about ten people there. But this is the museum that gave us chills, that celebrates the life and times of a truly great man, that outlines a cowardly act of assassination. Here we stood in the rooms where Martin Luther King spent his last days. We viewed the balcony on which he was killed. Then we went to the boarding house across the street to see where the assassin fired his rifle through the bathroom window. But this museum is so much more than just about King’s life. It follows the fight for civil rights in our nation with interactive videos, displays and many, many pictures.

And the sad thing? We shared all this with very few people. This museum was enlightening, educational and heart-wrenching. But there were 3,000 people over at the Elvis museum and twelve people at the National Civil Rights Museum. What is wrong with this picture?

Both museums exist to commemorate two men who had a great impact on our US heritage. Yet, one man was a singer who lived in a mansion and died of a drug overdose. The other led the fight against racial discrimination and was killed for it. Our culture certainly has strange priorities. Given the choice, shouldn’t we be visiting a museum to commemorate our civil rights 37 times instead of the other way around?