Memphis, Tennessee – home of Elvis, the blues, great barbecue and now, temporarily home to Freedom’s Sisters, SITES’ landmark exhibition honoring and celebrating the lives and contributions of 20 remarkable women who championed the causes of the civil rights movement, which opened at the National Civil Rights Museum on January.
A mere ten days after watching Barack Obama being sworn in as President, and just before the start of Black History Month, I couldn’t imagine a more fitting or meaningful place to be. From the tour that allowed me to stand on the Lorraine Motel balcony where Dr. King was shot (an intense and overwhelming experience) to the amazing conversations I had with both Myrlie Evers-Williams and Sonia Sanchez, this field trip and this exhibition defies anyone to not be awed and inspired by the human spirit; the tribulations it can overcome, the trials it will rise above and the triumphs it can ensure.
Each of the twenty women in this exhibit suffered and sacrificed, and each of them would, I think, have been pleased to know that their stories are being told at this particular museum. There was not a dry eye at the opening when Dr. Sanchez described writing a letter to her now-deceased father on Election Day 2008, explaining to him that a black man had become President of the United States. This powerhouse of a woman, who integrated the unions in New York, was integral to the Black Power movement, and uses poetry as a powerful medium to carry her message of equality and freedom for all, truly is a living legend. Myrlie Evers-Williams amplified the emotion when she explained that not only did she and Medgar Evers-Williams talk about and accept that his death (and possibly hers as well) was an inevitable consequence of the actions they were taking in Mississippi, but that she was never able to get the bloodstain completely out of their driveway after he was gunned down in front of her and their children in 1963.
Listening to and talking with these women was an unmatched experience. Doing it on such hallowed ground, at such an historic time in our nation made it a never-to-be-repeated moment that I will treasure. Watching Sonia Sanchez stand at a lunch counter and engage in the training that all sit-in activists had to undergo was poignant; a powerful reminder that we have traveled far, but there are still miles to go. Watching Myrlie Evers-Williams hug her daughter Rena, as we stood outside rooms 306 and 307 of the Lorraine Motel was startling in its intensity and almost felt like I was intruding – room 306 was Dr. King’s room, preserved in situ by the Museum – rumpled sheets, dirty ashtrays and all – a reminder that this man, like all who have moved into the mythology of our history was, in fact, very human. In the end I think we all shed some tears during this opening. But there were tears of joy too, and there was laughter in the reminiscing, and hope in the retelling of stories, and wonder to be found in the future. Freedom’s Sisters is both timely and significant, bringing women too long unrecognized out into the spotlight and celebrating them as they deserve.
--Aoife Toomey, SITES special assistant to the director