MEMPHIS — Memphis proudly proclaims itself "the city of three kings" — B.B., Martin Luther Jr. and Elvis, the king of rock 'n' roll. Throughout the city, there are constant reminders of these three iconic figures who helped shape its destiny — whether through music or a commitment to human rights.
As I discovered during a recent visit, music and human rights were often intertwined.
Tennessee's other Music City
Dressed in a multicolored caftan, Ekpe Abioto, an ethnomusicologist and descendent of slaves, demonstrates the use of the talking drum, and follows that up with melodious renditions of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Amazing Grace on a bamboo flute.
He explains how a secret language was created by slaves planning their escape, and that much of that language was in the form of song.
"For example, Down by the Riverside was more than a rousing spiritual; it was a signal between escaping slaves as to where they should meet," he says.
Abioto was speaking to us at the Jacob Burkle Estate, one of the stops on my Heritage Tour led by his sister, Elaine Turner, who specializes in civil rights tours. Turner explains that the house, built by a German immigrant, was a key location on the Underground Railroad.
Making my way through the trap door into the dark, hidden cellar where slaves would huddle — often for days — until it was safe for them to move north made me appreciate just how dangerous an enterprise it was — not only for the slaves, but for people like Burkle who harbored them.
Leaving the Burkle House, we drove past Robert R. Church Park, named for the city's first black millionaire, before arriving at the modest shotgun home of W.C. Handy, dubbed "the father of the blues."
"Blacks laboring in the cotton fields of the Delta poured out their souls in their music, making the songs of their suffering or 'blues' the first documented music in America," Turner tells us.
Music defines Memphis, music that came rolling up the Mississippi River in waves — mournful dirges and exultant anthems alike — and got off here to stay.
You can hear it in the raucous clubs on Beale Street. You can feel it at the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, which pays homage to artists such as the Staple Singers, Booker T and the MGs, and Al Green.
You feel it again at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, whose exhibits range from Tina Turner's gold, sequined stage costume to a saxophone retrieved from a Wisconsin lake after the fatal airplane crash that killed Otis Redding and the Bar-Kays.
You definitely feel it at Graceland — which, after the White House, is the most visited house in America, where the spirit of the King lingers on. (Through February, Graceland is mounting a special exhibit, 60 Years of Elvis.)
In Memphis, musical boundaries evaporate, creating a rich tapestry whose threads are woven from jazz, blues, soul, gospel, country and rock. Walk down Beale Street any time of the day or night and hear a wailing sax or a blues-blowing trumpet emanating from Blues City, Rum Boogie Café or B.B. King's.
Go to one of the Sunday church services and listen to a gospel group sounding like a choir of angels that have taken human form. Head out to Graceland with Backbeat Tours, and your tour guide will be a working musician who picks and strums in between telling stories.
Finally, visit legendary Sun Studio and let guide Lahna Deering, herself a singer/songwriter, show you where, on Dec. 4, 1956, the Million Dollar Quartet (Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis) made musical history.
Rebirth of the dream
However, Memphis is about more than music — much more. It was here that the civil rights movement saw some of its greatest triumphs and experienced its greatest tragedy.
At 7:05 p.m. Central Time April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead, after being felled by an assassin's bullet on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. In 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum opened on the same spot.
In 2012, the museum closed for a two-year, $27.5 million renovation and expansion project. It re-opened April 4, the 46th anniversary of King's death. Touring the museum is a moving experience.
The 4,000-square-foot expansion includes a new entrance to better showcase the stunning 7,000-pound bronze sculpture Movement to Overcome. The piece serves as an introduction for what is to come: interactive exhibits utilizing the newest technology to tell the stories of ordinary people possessed of extraordinary courage and determination.
Still, smart technology plays second fiddle to heart-rending humanity. Exhibits are designed to achieve the utmost impact. You can crouch in the cramped galley of a slave ship used to transport Africans to the New World in the 17th century.
You can board a replica of the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and watch history being made in a replica of the Supreme Court room where the 1954 landmark decision was handed down in the Brown v. Board of Education case.
You can hear the personal stories of lesser-known but no less important civil rights activists such as Fred Shuttlesworth and Diane Nash.
Finally you can arrive at the only part of the original Lorraine Motel left intact: Room 306, shared by King and Ralph Abernathy, and Room 307 across the hall. Both rooms have been kept exactly as they were on that fateful evening 46 years ago, and offer a chilling history lesson that can't be told in any book.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at email@example.com.