Mulberry Street was overflowing with hundreds of people as they gathered to witness the Breaking of the Chains grand reopening ceremony of the newly renovated National Civil Rights Museum on Saturday.
Reflecting myriad differences and a common appreciation for the significance of the event, they stood shoulder to shoulder on the day after the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination at the Lorraine Hotel. They already had been stirred by the Freedom Forward Parade that began at the Cook Convention Center and proceeded along Second Street to the museum than incorporates the old hotel.
Audible laughter could be heard as journalist, actor, director and producer, Tavis Smiley, jokingly said twice that he wanted the ceremony to move as swiftly as possible, so as to not prolong seeing the inside of the newly renovated center.
"I can't come to Memphis without coming by here to pay homage to the person I regard as one of the greatest Americans this country has ever seen," said Smiley, the master of ceremonies.
Retired CME Bishop E. Lynn Brown delivered the opening prayer.
"Dear God, we would be remiss if we didn't thank you for the man who gave his life on this sacred spot in this city. The man who left a legacy, unshakeable faith and a dream given by you," said Brown.
The ceremony, which lasted a bit more than hour, was accented with speeches, reflections and performances. A sign language interpreter was on stage for hearing impaired. Children, parents and other adults and seniors listened intently to each speaker, taking pictures and video recording.
Periodically, there were shouts of "Yes!" Amen! Glory be thy name."
Mayor A C Wharton Jr. made reference to the first day of the Grand Opening festivities the day before. "It may not have been 'Good Friday,' but it was a good Friday," he said.
Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. said, "This is indeed a memorial of a sacred place. I remember taking the time to bring my children here and showing them the trials and tribulations that took place. Now, I'm looking to bring my grandchildren here someday."
As singer Cortney Richardson performed a soulful rendition of Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up," 72-year-old Bertha Lester, visibly tearful, cried out, "Yes Lord."
"It brings back memories. I was born and reared in Mississippi, and I know what it's like to chop cotton and pick cotton and having the mister come around, riding the horses and carts to see if we were doing it right," said Lester, relying upon her cane for support. "Simply put, we've come a long way and today just moved me to tears.
While 74-year-old Georgia "Queen Akua" King, a museum volunteer, had visited the site numerous times over the years, Ruthie V. Whisnant was having her first experience.
"It has been a learning experience," Whisnant. "I was a teenager sitting in the living room with my parents when we learned what happened (to Dr. King). Now 58 years old, me and a group of others drove here from Jackson, Tenn. to be witness(es) for this ourselves."
Whistant and the crowd heard attorney D'Army Bailey's account of how the Lorraine Motel is still standing today.
"This area was decayed and the Lorraine Motel was rundown and we were struggling to keep the doors open," said Bailey.
The motel was foreclosed in 1982. Bailey decided to try and save it. Requesting the assistance of Chuck Scruggs, the general manager of WDIA, and then owner of the motel, Walter L. Bailey, an effort was started to secure funds. WDIA staff members, Mark Stansbury, A.C. Williams and Catherine Johnson joined in the efforts, as well, Bailey said.
After a long struggle, $85,000 was raised. "It was not enough as we went into foreclosure on the courthouse steps Dec. 13, 1982. I went to the auction and standing on the steps with me was A.W. Willis, Jesse Turner of Tri-State Bank, Chuck Scruggs and Paul Shapiro of Lucky Heart cosmetics...
"Standing on the steps of the court A.W. Willis came over to me and said Tri-State Bank offered to give $50,000 if I could get some guarantors. Jim Smith (of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1733) and Paul Shapiro donated $25,000 each. ...
"We bought the motel on the court house steps for $144,000."
Radio personality Aisha Raison of MCS 88.5 recited an original poem, "The Breaking of the Chains." Congressman Steve Cohen said a letter of recognition would be forthcoming from President Obama "as he was not able to make it, but I'm hoping he will be here before the summer is over."
National Civil Rights Museum President, Beverly Robertson, spoke to the still swelling crowd as the time neared for the breaking of the chains. Retiring after serving 17 years, Robertson said, "It has been a journey but I have gained strength sufficient for the journey."
Robinson noted the list of stellar leaders that have been honored at the museum, including the late Nelson Mandela, the upgrading of the staff, the multi-million dollar renovation and endowment campaign and more.
"I think that I've had my season, and it's time for someone else to have a season. And so I step out with a little (hesitance) but a lot of joy because of what we've accomplished."
After a closing prayer, the long chain linked in front of the entryway of the museum was broken as white doves were simultaneously released.
As visitors waited in line for entrance into the museum, they danced, sang along and fellowshipped while listening to the funky and soulful sounds of the Bar-Kays. Other performers included The LeMoyne-Owen College Gospel Choir, several musical artists, spoken work artists, and several dance teams.
(For visitation plans, business hours and more, visit: www.civilrightsmusuem.org.)