Martin Luther King Annual March participants | Photo by James Motter on Unsplash

How to experience civil rights issues as a non-American

Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Sunday 7 June 2020 United States of America Leave a Comment

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From NOLA, we took the City of New Orleans Amtrak (this time in very comfortable coach class) north to Memphis… A journey that would normally take just over eight hours took us more than 11 as our train got stuck en-route due to an accident on the track. In the end, we arrived at our short-term rental accommodation in Memphis at 0130h.

Memphis

On our first morning in town, the St Jude Marathon was on… Sadly, Paul only learned about it from Brigitte (our German host) on our trip up, otherwise, he would have participated in one of the shorter races. Despite missing out on a running opportunity, Paul quoted Memphis as one of his favourites on our trip through the Deep South.

Memphis has a lot of character… many industrial ruins and empty houses that are about to fall apart … but you could see and feel the history here… and we did just that:

  • We immersed ourselves in the life of the locals by attending the Sunday service at the Full Tabernacle Baptist Church where Reverend Al Greene has been the pastor for over 40 years. We actually arrived early and were invited to join part of Sunday School as well. The service started at 1130h and lasted till 1400h… so make sure you have a good breakfast if you plan to do the same one day.
  • On the way back into town, we walked past Graceland, the grounds and the grand mansion where Elvis used to live (an OTT tourist attraction in the middle of sad looking, industrial suburbia). We stopped briefly at the museum shop but decided that paying USD36 per person minimum entry fee to see furniture and clothes, even though we appreciate his music, was not having value for us. Instead, we took the free shuttle to tour Sun Studio where music greats like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash first started recording.
  • What Frenchmen and Bourbon Streets are for New Orleans is Beale Street for Memphis… so one evening we stayed in town to enjoy some live music. We wanted to see Queen Ann Hines who was due to play at the Blues Hall that night but upon entering the bar, we noticed that people were smoking inside (apparently Tennessee allows smoking inside if the venue is 21+ only) so we turned around. Shame, we would have really liked to experience her.

The highlight for me in Memphis was our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. We spent a whole six hours in there and could have stayed another two hours (if they hadn’t closed) – that’s how interesting and educational it was. The museum incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Dr Martin Luther King Junior (MLK) was assassinated on 4 April 1968 and the former boarding house opposite where the deadly shot was fired from. It was such an eerie feeling walking into the motel room, looking out the window and seeing right in front of you the spot where he was assassinated and the bathroom window in the boarding house opposite half-opened… as if it all just happened. I had tears in my eyes a few times as I read, watched and listened to the exhibits… but staying in that room was especially emotional.

Motel Room at Lorraine Motel in Memphis when Martin Luther King was assassinated
Motel Room at Lorraine Motel in Memphis when Martin Luther King was assassinated

Nashville

We travelled from Memphis to Tennessee’s capital by Greyhound bus… a journey of only four hours. While it shares music history with Memphis, Nashville was very different… you could tell that there is much more money in the state capital: There were construction sites everywhere, lots of modern structures, new housing, hip cafes and restaurants even in outer suburbs… a big gentrification effort underway.

Being the Music Capital, we enjoyed, of course, some live music along Broadway, popped by the Ryman Auditorium (where the Grand Ole Opry still happens during winter… but with ticket prices of USD100+ per person it was just too expensive for us) and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (where the greats of Country music including Elvis, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, etc are honoured). We also braved the freezing temperatures doing a self-guided walking tour to check out some architectural and historic sites around town.

Out of all the food places we went to in Nashville, really only one stood out for us: Frothy Monkey in the 12 South neighbourhood had some nice coffee and great atmosphere.

Live music in Broadway Nashville USA
Live music in Broadway, Nashville

Birmingham

It shares more than just the name of the city in England… it also has similarly deep industrial roots, being a former mill and mining town. Several locals said to us “There is nothing here to do. Why did you bother coming?” Looking past the boarded-up shops, derelict houses and industrial wastelands we’ve seen so many in Memphis already, the city again was steeped in history.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham had the nickname Bombingham… It was one of the most segregated cities in the Deep South, the police force, equipped with dogs and water cannons and supported by the Ku Klux Klan, brutally fighting the Civil Rights movement, among them many children.

Paying our respect to all those who struggled for freedom and equality, we visited Kelly Ingram Park, the Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church where four teenage girls were killed in one of the bombings. It was a very sombre and sobering experience. We were able to go inside the church as the Sunday service had just finished. When we walked out, one of the Parishioners invited us to the Christmas music festival the same afternoon. As with the church in Memphis, we were welcomed with open arms by the local (predominantly black) community, despite being complete strangers and despite the history of that church in particular… very humbling indeed.

Staying with history, albeit a slightly different one, we also checked out the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame… I only knew three of those inducted: Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Evander Holyfield. What else is worth mentioning? Oh yes, we went to Trattoria Centrale for Sunday brunch, had a nice sandwich and salad at Urban Standard and checked out Woodlawn Cycle Café for dinner (as it was just a few blocks away from our accommodation).

We took the Greyhound bus from Nashville which stopped in Huntsville, Alabama. If we would do it again we would spend a night there and check out the US Space and Rocket Centre. It looked really interesting as we passed by on our bus journey.

Civil Rights Statue at Kelly Ingram Park Birmingham
Civil Rights Statue at Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham

Atlanta

While Atlanta also has a highly recommended Civil Rights Museum, we had visited two other museums already. We, therefore, preferred to check out the MLK National Historic Site instead. It incorporates the house where MLK was born, the neighbourhood where he grew up, the church where his grandfather, father and MLK himself were pastors and MLK’s and Coretta Scott King’s graves. I always wondered how his wife did after his assassination, having to care for three small children. She continued her husband’s legacy until her death, being a freedom fighter in her own right… very inspirational.

While in Atlanta, we also

  • attended a tour of CNN (while interesting, our group was far too big, we were rushed through it like sheep, and USD16 per person was far too expensive for what it was),
  • checked out the Sweet Auburn Curb Market (in MLK’s neighbourhood), and
  • tasted some yummy doughnuts at Revolution Doughnuts and Decatur (near our short-term rental accommodation).

Another noteworthy experience was Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Library and Museum. We stumbled upon it by chance but found it to be very insightful:

  • It provides good insights into US politics and policy (quite poignant given we had been in New York on election night and have been inundated by the media’s pre- and post-election coverage).
  • The museum also has a replica of the Oval Office (we missed out on the real one as you have to book it months in advance) and covers his post-presidency period: he and his wife set up the Carter Centre, dedicating the rest of their lives to making the world a better place.

I’ll definitely check out whether and how we can get involved, as seeing what the foundation does, struck a chord with me.

Standing in replica of Oval Office Jimmy Carter Presidential Library Atlanta
Standing in replica of Oval Office Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta

Interested in learning about the USA through entertainment? These inspiration travel movies will allow you to go on your own virtual tour around the world.

Savannah

This was to be our last Greyhound trip in the US (for now). It was also our longest… 4 1/2 hours. As all available short-term rental accommodations in Savannah were quite expensive, we ended up staying in a motel, Baymont Inn & Suites Midtown, which had everything we needed: good public transport connection, supermarkets and restaurants in walking distance, coin laundry on the premises… even breakfast was included. And we enjoyed summer temperatures again, having 25 degrees and sunshine (bar our last day). It was so nice to walk around in shorts and thongs again.

After a second breakfast at The Collins Quarter, we strolled around town, through its many parks (though we missed popping by the spot where Forest Gump sat on the park bench at Chippewa Square) and historical neighbourhoods, along the waterfront (where we saw two dolphins playing in the coffee coloured water of the Savannah River), stopping by the City Market and finishing our day out at Forsyth Park.

I really liked Savannah. It reminded me a bit of New Orleans with its architecture, the Spanish moss-covered trees and the friendliness of its people.

Bay Street factories and warehouses of Savannah
Bay Street factories and warehouses of Savannah

Charleston

Another Amtrak (the Palmetto) took us to Charleston, only 1h40min away. With the station being quite far away from downtown on the northern edges of Charleston, we had to take a bus ride into town and another one back out again, across the Ravenel Bridge to Mount Pleasant where our short-term rental accommodation was located.

While Savannah’ suburbs (at least those we travelled through) were all well kept, Charleston’s suburbs spoke of poverty… many dilapidated houses where people still lived. A total contrast was Charleston’s city centre… it was full of grand mansions in Greek and Egyptian revival style, most of them very well-maintained. While beautiful to look at, the contrast between rich and poor couldn’t have been more evident.

With two full days to explore Charleston, we spent day one strolling around downtown. Starting at the Visitor Centre opposite Music Hall, we headed south on King Street, left at Market Street, through City Markets to Waterfront Park, then south again along the waterfront – past Rainbow Row on East Bay Street – all the way to Whitepoint Garden, then back up King Street, right onto Broadway, with lunch at Fast & French Gaulart-Maliclet, further along, Broadway stopping at City Hall, past the Old Slave Mart and back up East Bay Street to the Visitor Centre.

For day two, we decided to stay over at the Mount Pleasant side, dividing our time between Patriots Point and a boat trip to Fort Sumter where the American Civil War started. At Patriots Point, we spent all morning visiting the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, checking out the various levels of accommodation, the flight deck, Medal of Honour Hall, and we even went into the Apollo 8 space capsule for a simulated flight to the moon and back (great fun). Taking the 1330h tour from Patriots Point to Fort Sumter (returning 1545h), we explored the USS Clamagore submarine in the late afternoon, finishing with the Vietnam Experience, a pretty scary display trying to bring the war experience to everyday people.

As we left for the day, we both felt confirmed in our views that war should be avoided at all cost, feeling sorry for the millions of lives affected both on the sides of the soldiers and their families and the civilians living through war. There can never be a winner (apart from those financially profiting from it, often supplying weapons to both sides of a conflict).

Street scene in Charleston
Street scene in Charleston

Washington

With trains and buses taking a full day and plane tickets not significantly more expensive despite the lead-up to Christmas, we decided to fly to Washington.

We had booked a short-term rental accommodation in a peaceful, predominantly black neighbourhood in South-East Washington. As we arrived on 23 December, we were the only guests for three nights and had the chance to get to know our hosts – Nell, Noel and 8-year-old Noel Jr – a little more personally. Having arrived from St Vincent and the Grenadines many years ago, the family rented out rooms across several properties, having many parties per month staying with them in high season. Airbnb really has created another (in this case significant) source of income for many.

Given the bad weather on Christmas Eve, our first full day in town was spent indoors doing our weekly washing, working on the website and talking to friends and family via Skype / FaceTime, celebrating Christmas a little different this year. We did treat ourselves to a nice dinner though, enjoying tapas at Ambar Capitol Hill.

With all the sights closed on 25/26 December, we explored many of the monuments on 25 December, walking from the Navy Monument along the National Mall to the Washington Monument, popping by the White House, then back to the National Mall and on to the Lincoln Memorial, past the Korean War Memorial, the MLK Memorial and the Roosevelt Memorial around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. As we were hungry from all the walking we finished the day with a late lunch in Chinatown (the only place we could think of knowing that restaurants would be open). We continued our strolls around town the next day, checking out the U Street / Shaw and Georgetown neighbourhoods.

Our last day was spent exploring the Library of Congress (in the footsteps of Nicholas Cage in National Treasure) and the US Capitol, after enjoying breakfast at Le Bon Café. Attending free guided tours in both, and not being able to check out the chambers of the Senate or House of Representatives, the Library was our favourite of the two, being a gorgeous building in its own right and holding millions of artefacts in more than 400 languages. Seeing the first printed Gutenberg Bible, an original world map (both from the early 16th century and both originating in Germany) and Jefferson’s original library was quite special.

Lincoln Memorial Washington USA | Photo by Kelli Dougal on Unsplash
Lincoln Memorial Washington USA | Photo by Kelli Dougal on Unsplash

New York

We took our first Megabus in the US from Washington DC to New York, and what a difference compared to Greyhound it was: clean buses, an ability to reserve seats (we booked front row seats for bugger all), no fuss friendly service and no need to have a print-out of your booking… you just tell the desk person your booking number and they tick you off their list.

The second time in New York within only seven weeks, we stayed in Williamsburg/Brooklyn, just across the East River, at another short-term rental accommodation, our host this time being a screenwriter and director. Her apartment was right at Marcy Avenue subway station, with the subway trains screeching into the station just outside our window, shaking the house in the process. That obviously took some getting used to but after a while, we didn’t register the trains as much anymore. As with our hosts in New Orleans or Washington, we had some great conversations with our host, Kate, who even took time to give us a mini film school workshop to help us with our future vlogs… Thanks so much, Kate.

Having been to New York before, we did less touristy stuff this time:

  • We explored the Williamsburg neighbourhood, checking in on some of Kate’s recommendations, including celebrating our wedding anniversary with a yummy dinner at Baby’s All Right… though we didn’t make it to OddFellows to taste their supposedly yummy ice cream (one for next time).
  • We did some (minimalist) shopping: Paul replaced one of his two khaki pants with a black pair, Paul’s Icebreaker socks had holes in them, and to our surprise, they exchanged them (thanks to a lifetime guarantee), and I found some ballerinas to salsa dance… yay.
  • We saw the ball drop at Times Square, celebrating New Year’s Eve at Rosie O’Grady’s (an absolutely ridiculously expensive experience but one that was on Paul’s bucket list).

We also visited the Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (interesting but with a strong focus on American sports, and with USD16 per person a bit too expensive in our view) and the 9/11 Museum (it was still being built when we had visited the Memorial in 2012). At first, we were pleasantly surprised how spacious the 9/11 Museum was as we entered and made our way downstairs to the foundation level. However, with the key exhibition area being within the footprint of the North Tower, that part of the museum felt very claustrophobic (imagine ‘Tokyo subway kind of packed’ with people trying to get a glimpse of the exhibits). In our view, it was also very one-sided, portraying the American view of the world (and thus ignoring some of the facts that have contributed to 9/11). We were also shocked when we entered the architecturally stunning, wing-shaped PATH/ subway station opposite and discovered that it had been made into a temple to consumerism (a Westfield Shopping Centre with high-end shops), totally inappropriate for the site in our view.

We had looked at Ice skating at the Rockefeller Centre (I always wanted to do it) and at checking out another sky-high view from either the top of the Rockefeller Centre or the new One World Trade Centre, but with prevalent AUD/USD exchange rates (and the 360-degree views from the Empire State Building in 2012 still in our memories), we gave them a miss. Taking a minimalist approach, we certainly make more conscious decisions on how we spend our money…

Wedding Anniversary dinner in Brooklyn New York
Wedding Anniversary dinner in Brooklyn

How much does it cost to explore the USA? By global standards, the USA is not a cheap country to visit. Do you know what to budget for when planning a trip around the USA?

The Verdict

Having spent 10 1/2 weeks in North America (8 of which in the US, travelling through 20 States and as well as the District of Colombia), we have

  • met some wonderful people and visited some beautiful places (some of which we’d happily visit again one day),
  • gained invaluable insights on how to create a delightful short-term rental accommodation experience – both as guests and as future hosts and
  • learned a lot about the US and indeed world history.

Without specific intent, our route from NOLA to Washington led us through States where racial inequality has existed for centuries (and to some extent still continues to this day). However, despite the brutality and hardship (or maybe because of it), those affected have been able to preserve a richness of culture (leaving a mark on music history more than any other) and have maintained a community spirit that we have not experienced in many places.

Through our experiences, some of our values have manifested themselves even more, and we are both a bit clearer about the direction we would like to take in contributing to making the world a better place.

Feature photo by James Motter on Unsplash

US states visited in 2016
US states visited in 2016
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