The National Civil Rights Museum sits in what was the Lorraine Motel, just beyond the shadows of Memphis’s skyscrapers and the garish neon glow of Beale Street — the main drag made famous by the likes of BB King and James Baldwin. The first words of the first exhibit state: "Protest against injustice is deeply rooted in the African-American experience." Then come pictures of lynchings, burning crosses, martyrs and heroes, alongside mock-ups of Rosa Parks in the bus and lunch counters waiting to be integrated.
About two-thirds of the way through is a replica of the Birmingham jail cell from which Martin Luther King wrote his letter in response to the local white clergy asking him to stop the protests and leave town. "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice," he wrote. "Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
And from there begins the gradual incline past the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the emergence of black power and the assassination of Malcolm X, until you reach room 306 — where the story ends with King stepping out on to the Lorraine Motel balcony on April 4 1968 to be killed by a sniper’s bullet.
Forty years after King’s death, the ability of America to both mythologise the man and marginalise his meaning is all too cruelly apparent. His symbolic likeness is effortlessly incorporated into America’s self-image as the land of relentless progress. Meanwhile, his legacy of struggling against poverty and imperialism is undermined with every passing day. Had he lived he would most certainly have been loathed. In order for America to love him, he first had to die.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the stewardship of the museum itself. For while the exhibits showcase King’s struggles for equal rights, the executive director of its board, JR "Pitt" Hyde, has been actively working against the selfsame principles. Hyde is a wealthy Republican who worked for the defeat of Harold Ford Jr (a black candidate) in a Senate race that was generally acknowledged to be the most racist campaign of the 2006 elections.
The contradictions between the life’s work of King and Hyde couldn’t be more stark. King fought racial injustice. Hyde for several years fought a racial harassment lawsuit that was backed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the company that he founded, AutoZone. King was in Memphis to support a garbage workers’ strike over pay and conditions. Hyde has packed his board with corporate types who hire out the museum for functions.
"Nowadays they like the fact that they can sit down to dinner at the site of the King assassination," says circuit judge D’Army Bailey, a founder of the museum who was ousted from the board. "It gives them a good feeling. Corporations want to be identified with it because that kind of identification brings pacification. It’s been hijacked."
This cognitive dissonance between what has proved to be morally right and what remains politically expedient is deeply entrenched. The absurdity it engenders will crest over the coming week as the nation watches, as though on a split screen, as King is lauded on one side and Barack Obama’s former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, remains lambasted on the other.
Wright is no King. His delivery is too shrill, his demeanour too hectoring, his message insufficiently unifying. Nonetheless, Wright and King come from the same tradition of militant religious leadership that has been a hallmark of black political life for well over a century. Under slavery and then segregation, the church was one of the few places that African-Americans could gather and organise autonomously — giving primacy, for better and for worse, to the pulpit and the preacher in black politics.
"The principal social institution within every black community was the church," writes historian Manning Marable in his book Black Leadership. "As political leaders, the black clergy were usually the primary spokespersons for the entire black community, especially during periods of crisis … To some extent, this tradition has been characterised by a charismatic or dominating political style."
It is unlikely King would have fared any better on YouTube or the blogosphere than Wright did. King, like Wright, was excoriated for opposing the "senseless and unjust war" in Vietnam. "The reaction was like a torrent of hate and venom," recalled one of his aides, Andrew Young. "As a Nobel prizewinner we expected people not to agree with it, but to take it seriously. We didn’t get that. We got an emotional outburst attacking his right to have an opinion."
A few months before he died, King told parishioners at his church in Montgomery, Alabama: "We are criminals in that war … We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world … But God has a way of even putting nations in their place." And how would God deal with an unrepentant America? "And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power."
After a few loops of that on 24-hour cable TV, it’s not difficult to imagine the anchors pressuring Bobby Kennedy to disavow all association with such a wayward black preacher. These episodic outcries at the black political vernacular reveal the force and the fragility of King’s legacy.
The monied black middle class his movement helped create is imploding. A Pew report last year revealed that almost half of African-Americans born to middle-income parents in 1968 — the year King died — have ended up in the lowest fifth of the nation’s earners. This was true for just 16% of whites. Obama’s electoral hopes notwithstanding, black America has rarely been more pessimistic. Another Pew poll shows that less than half say life will get better for them in the future — a significant retreat even from the dog days of the Reagan era.
America may be integrated by law, but it is segregated by practice and perspective. Black Americans not only live parallel lives to white Americans, they also have a different understanding of what America has been, is and could be.
"This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others," wrote scholar and activist WEB DuBois at the turn of the last century. "Of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness — an American, a negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Given the nation’s racial history, such ambivalence should come as little surprise, yet invariably becomes news when expressed from a sufficiently prominent dais.
Turning your back on room 306 in the Memphis museum and walking back through the lynchings, martyrs, crosses and bombed churches, one is reminded of the words of Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. "If the black man is a little bitter," he wrote, "the white man should be the last person in the world to accuse him of bitterness."
Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist and feature writer based in the US. He was formerly the paper’s New York correspondent. His most recent book is Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States; he is also the author of No Place Like Home, published in 1999