Day 5: Memphis Cotton and King

On Friday, the group headed to Memphis, where they learned about the South's defining crop at the Cotton Museum...

...experienced the role soul music played in regional culture at STAX Records...

...and visited the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

While traveling to Memphis, the group stopped at the Clarksdale Greyhound Station. There they witnessed the division between what once served as “white” and “colored” waiting rooms, reflecting the unequal reality of Jim Crow.

After another hour on the road, the traveling classroom arrived in Memphis. Participants disembarked at the Cotton Museum, which is located on the historic trading floor of the Mississippi Cotton Exchange. In the South,”cotton was king;” from the sharecropping system to debutante balls, it determined the region’s social structure and supported its economy. The museum showcased cotton’s evolving role. New technologies for harvesting and producing cotton transformed the South as a whole, a process participants witnessed through interactive exhibits.

The next stop of the day was the Stax Museum, which tracks the rise and fall of Stax Records and the development of Southern soul music. Founded in 1959, Stax Records offered not only a platform for up-and-coming soul artists, but also a racially integrated environment where black and white musicians played together. Although the record label closed long ago, the museum and music school that opened in its place continue its legacy.

Lunch, which doubled as the taste of the day, split the group in two; some participants headed to Central BBQ for a Memphis classic, while others sought vegetarian options at Lyfe Kitchen.

After lunch, participants headed to the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. The facade looks as it did in 1968, with the exception of a memorial commemorating the life of Reverend King.

The museum demonstrated the power of thoughtful curation. Its exhibits progressed chronologically, beginning with the origins of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and continuing through the Civil Rights movement. From well-known figures like Rosa Parks and MLK, to the everyday achievements of ordinary African-Americans pursuing integration and freedom, the people whose narratives lined the halls inspired and challenged the group.

The afternoon concluded at the Peabody Hotel, where participants witnessed a decades-old tradition. Every day, ducks are escorted to and from a fountain in the lobby. While the ducks alone attract large crowds, the Peabody also represents the economic and geographic peak of the Mississippi Delta, which “begins in [its] lobby and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.”

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