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Beverly Robertson has been one of ‘the caged birds’ who sings

Beverly Roberston
The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Beverly Robertson, the indomitable President and CEO of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, is “a caged bird…that sings of freedom.” She is one of the millions of Maya Angelou’s living protégés, a proud African American woman who overcame the systemic social toxins of Jim Crow.

You gotta get up for yourself!

I once asked her if, when she was growing up in Memphis, did she ever imagine that she would sitting in her office, presiding over a museum that houses both the American civil rights story and the death shrine of Martin Luther King?

“No, I could not have imagined that, but I know that growing up in Memphis was a very positive experience for me. My father was a truck driver and my mother was the kind who stayed home with the kids. My dad was really the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life but because he was African American, he didn’t get close to anywhere maximizing his intellect or his ability.

“I remember one Christmas, I told my dad the only thing, the one thing I wanted was a little bottle of fire engine red fingernail polish.” Beverly’s voice rose with a crescendo of remembrance and affection: “So when I woke up on Christmas morning and saw my little bottle of fire engine red fingernail polish”—

Beverly was laughing with pleasure now: “It was just the best. I grew up in a loving, caring environment. If we didn’t always have new clothes, our hair was brushed, our faces were scrubbed clean, and anything less than an ‘A’ from school was unacceptable.”

Robertson described the “awesome teachers” she and her classmates had in the segregated Melrose High School (“I was a Golden Wildcat!”), people who were guided by a sense of mission and perhaps even ancestral destiny during the years of the civil rights transformation.

“Our teachers were so into us. It didn’t matter that we were in inferior buildings, that we got used, marked-up text books handed down from the white schools. They were old and tattered and torn. We didn’t care! Oh, the life we led then. I had a teacher once—I have to tell you—you had to have seen this woman. She stepped up on her desk one day and started her dancing—”

Suddenly, I was beholding Beverly Robertson standing up at her own desk, scarf flying, hands flinging, eyes blazing, actually singing in what was something of a gospel strain: “You gotta get up for yourself! Nobody’s gonna do your thinkin’ for you. You better think for yourself!”

It was funny, it was honey-sweet, it was declarative, it was bold, and it was touching. And then, it was oh-so-troubling. Textbooks for information-hungry, intellectually curious, knowledge-seeking American school kids being garnered via throwaway, tatty, already handled and marked-up tomes that could only be pristine when christened by white students in white-only public schools?

Why did the African American children in the bowels of Memphis not have home heat when the ice storms of winter howled across the basin and caused their teeth to chatter and their legs to ache and their hearts to pound? The great oaks outside would crack from the concussions of cold while white kids would snuggle next to sweet-smelling fireplaces and under thick down comforters, their bellies content and filled with hot food and peace, from Montgomery to Memphis and back to Atlanta and Tallahassee. Nor did immunities truly exist from this insipid social segregation and apartheid in places like Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, or Chicago.

“I know why the caged bird sings.”

Adapted from my 2012 book, 'ROOM 306: The National Story of the Lorraine Motel'

See my latest book, 'DANGEROUS FRIENDSHIP: Stanley Levison, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers'

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