I didn’t think that I would get quite as emotional as I did when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. My heritage is not African-American, I have only lived in Australia. My experiences are vastly different to those of the African-American people, and I do not claim any authority or judgement of their struggles, but the sheer tragedy cut me through. It echoed what I had learned of the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. It highlighted the current human rights issues we face, including refugees and people living under oppressive authorities.
The museum started with a bag search and a metal detector: this is the site where Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The days of domestic hate crimes are not long past and the majority of the crowd were African-American. What would it be like to be one of the staff (African-American) at the museum? To be reminded of their tragic history at work, only to step out into a world where #blacklivesmatter is a burning issue. But I saw a certain strength and positivity in the African-American staff.
Racial segregation still existed in the 1960s in the USA. That’s within the lifetime of my father. He would have been 24 years old when Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. The revelation that this is contemporary history shifted my world view. Considering that the generation that experienced segregation still lives, how much has our society and authorities really changed in such a short amount of time? What is the effect of the intergenerational trauma? My father told me, when he was younger and travelled in rural Australia, the pubs were displayed signs that they don’t serve Aboriginal people. When his father, my grandfather, was young, Chinese-Australians were not allowed to sit in the seats in the cinema; they were forced to sit on the ground. The new Chinese migrants, in Australia and San Fransisco, were treated as 2nd class humans and institutional racism was perpetuated by government policies like the White Australia Policy and the Chinese Exclusion Act 1882 (USA).
As I walked through the museum, the mood changed to one of defiance and perseverance. The speeches of Dr King rang through the room, footage of sit-ins ran on the walls and “We Shall Overcome” repeated in the next room (lyrics scrolled on the screen and visitors were encouraged to sing along). Stories of how the African-American community protested with direct non-violent action were shown. I discovered stories of how non-African Americans came together to support the Civil Rights Movement. The deplorable story of Viola Liuzzo’s death. But I found a gem that touched my story:
The Women’s and LGBTI movements also supported the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Though, all these “movements” still need to progress further to equality. The current environment is better for the LGBTI community. Young LGBTI people face less harassment than prior generations, and same-sex marriage becomes legal in more countries. Yet harsh laws for homosexuals still exist in the world, gay men get thrown off buildings by ISIL, and, the Australian government sends refugees escaping persecution to detention in countries that criminalise homosexuality.
Despite all the shit that still occurs, I am filled with a bittersweet hope. I see how far the Civil Rights Movement has come in the last 60 years. I see how far the LGBTI rights movement has come in the last 45 years, within my lifetime. The common threads in these stories come together like in a quilt, perpetuating compassion and empathy. There still is a long road ahead, but as share our stories in this connected world, I understand a little more of the experiences of a Syrian refugee child, Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, or a descendant of member of the Stolen Generation. I am also a we.
This is not my usual subject matter. I’m not a political historian, just an ordinary person. Thanks for your patience, this post was an impromptu one, and I tried to be respectful to all groups whilst maintaining my own perspective and not self-censoring for the sake of political correctness. I hope that I did do that, it is not my intent to disrespect.