by Beverly C. Robertson
National Civil Rights Museum
As the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th approaches, we are reminded of the importance of preserving sites that offer all of us the opportunity to grieve together, reflect together, and, most importantly, learn together.
September 11th, 2001 became a moment of truth for many Americans. This moment, like so many traumatic occurrences over time, has led to much introspection and a quest to understand how such a tragic event could happen. Many people were jolted by the realization that not everyone views America with kindness. And as shocking and tragic as September 11th continues to be, it is important to remember this difficult history; there is knowledge and transformation in remembrance.
As I think about the trauma of September 11th, I am reminded of how paralyzing the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was to many Americans. As a result of his death, many cities spiraled out of control, with citizens expressing rage through riots, looting and burnings. It took a great deal of reflection and years of introspective exploration to finally understand that tremendous lessons are often borne out of tragedy.
While many sought an answer to who killed Dr. King, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, one of his closest friends, made a profound statement following Dr. King’s death. He simply said, “The question is not who killed Dr. King, but what killed Dr. King.” Upon much reflection, I advance some possibilities. Hatred? Ignorance? Fear? Racism? Misunderstanding? Intolerance? Could the same question asked by Dr. Abernathy more than 40 years ago apply today, when thinking about 9-11? What would our answers be today?
As people perhaps pondered their own answers to Dr. Abernathy’s question and the government launched its investigation into Dr. King’s assassination, there was another effort underway, at least a decade after his death, to create a site that would memorialize the sacrifice of so many who struggled to make America live up to the promises in its founding documents. This memorial is now the National Civil Rights Museum, located at Memphis, Tennessee’s Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s assassination.
Like the work on the September 11th Memorial over the past decade, there were many battles, fits and starts, and much emotion while getting the museum off the ground. But today the September 11th Memorial is well on its way to being completed, and twenty years in, the National Civil Rights Museum has become an international space for learning, sharing and reflecting.
Proper reflection often requires some distancing in time to explore and process a diverse range of questions and a wide range of emotions. And as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11th, one milestone among many more to come, we remember the ultimate sacrifice made by so many that day. At the same time, we keep in mind that there is much healing, power, and transformation in reflection.
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