Memphis was founded in 1819 and because it lays on the banks of the Mississippi River, it was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. Memphis developed as a transportation center in the 19th century because of its flood-free location, on the major throughway of the Mississippi.
The cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of large numbers of slaves. Memphis became a major slave market- one of the major reasons why it became the major east-west railway between Charleston and the Midwest.
Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, and Memphis briefly became a Confederate stronghold. However, Union gunboats recaptured the city in the naval on June 6, 1862, remained under Union control for the duration of the war and became a Union supply base throughout the war.
In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics devastated Memphis. The worst outbreak, in 1878, reduced the population by nearly 75% as many people died or fled the city permanently.
During the 1960s, the city was at the center of civil rights issues, notably a sanitation workers strike.
The Lorraine Motel became a world wide landmark when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while standing on its balcony on April 4, 1968. Just the night before he offered his prophetic speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” at the Mason Temple when he announced, “… I have seen the promised land… I may not get there with you
but I know that we as a people will get to the promised land… “
Today there is a civil rights museum constructed around the Lorraine Motel. The Museum is built in two parts. The first part presents a circular maze of exhibits chrnoicalling the milestones of civil rights from the formation of the Constitution all the way to the night MLK was shot. The exhibits culminate by showing the perfectly preserved rooms where King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy stayed the night King was shot.
The museum continues in a second building across the street and starts at the perfectly preserved room where the presumed shooter, James Earl Ray, fired the shots that took King’s life. It shows the car that Ray drove and the evidence found in the car as well as all the information that has led many people to make assertions of a conspiracy and even FBI involvement. It is an extraordinarily well conceived and powerfully constructed museums ever built.
Memphis is also well known for its cultural contributions to the identity of American music. Many renowned musicians grew up in and around Memphis and moved from the Mississippi Delta including Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Isaac Hayes, Al Green and – of course – Elvis Presley.
Visiting Graceland – a site that attracts far more tourists than the Civil Rights Museum – is like pulling the cover back on a piece of American iconography. For all his hip-swiveling larger than life persona, it is hard to argue the immense impact Elvis had on a wide variety of musical styles – from gospel, to country, to balladeering to Rock and Roll.
Elvis helped to shape and shift what became popular and profitable in American culture. His larger than life image (and some would say, ego) could not be contained in any simple mold and he broke through every conceivable barrier making it possible for those following to do things they could never have dreamed of.