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The Stax Museum

(part of an ongoing series about activities during my sabbatical)

The next trip of my sabbatical was an all-family trip to Tennessee and Alabama to visit significant sites in the Civil Rights movement. Our goal was to gain a deeper understanding of the people and events in this critical time and to consider how this might help us grow as followers of Jesus as well as better understand current events.

The first stop on our trip was Memphis, which was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement. Memphis is well-known also for its music and we stayed just around the corner from Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. We didn’t visit Graceland however but instead spent a day at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

The Stax Museum is located on the original site of Stax Records, a label that was home to artists like Otis Redding, The Mar-Keys, and Carla Thomas. While our family is not familiar with soul music and many of the artists, the museum was a fascinating look at history, both of the music and its intersection with what was going on at that time in American history.

As people who enjoy music, we were fascinated to learn about the artists and the story of the people who made the records. Reading about artists and how they got into the industry illustrated the many ways that people can become stars. For example, Otis Redding came to Stax as a chauffeur for another group. After the lead singer of that group had a bad session and they allowed Redding to sing, and he went on to become the biggest star for the label.

Stax was was an integrated business with blacks and whites working side by side which was rather unusual for that time in Memphis. Not only did they work together, they also socialized together, often hanging out at the Lorraine Motel, one of the few hotels in Memphis that was not segregated. The Lorraine Motel is the site where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. His assassination radically altered the atmosphere at Stax and it in many ways ceased to be a place of refuge for creativity without regard for race.

One of the displays in the museum is a reassembled circa 1906 church from the Mississippi Delta. This exhibit highlights the roots of soul music in the sounds of Southern gospel music, and is a reminder of the ways in which Christian faith permeated and shaped much of the African American culture. I am not suggesting that “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” is a Christian song or that all the artists were followers of Jesus; I simply note the roots of this music.

Next week I will share about our visit to the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum and we will dive deeper into the Civil Rights Movement but until then, a few questions to consider: What does the music we sing say about a community? How does it shape us and how does it help us express emotions, ideas, and values? How can the arts serve as a way to draw communities together, perhaps breaking down divisions and prejudice? Are there ways the arts can do the opposite?

Thanks for reading.

Carl Franzon, Pastor