Bono’s Trek to the City of Three Kings

Representative John Lewis (D-Ga) and Bono

The historic city of Memphis, Tennessee, with its shores resting on the mighty Mississippi River, keeps any resident or passerby out and about busy with everything from the musical legacy of Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Sun Studios, Stax Records, the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Beale Street’s jazz and blues clubs, to wondrous riverboat rides, museums, and sporting events. A visitor’s most important stop during a stay in Memphis, however, might very well be a motel.

Ruth Barohn reports for

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The Lorraine Motel, the site of the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was resurrected in 1991 into the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM). The museum chronicles key episodes of the American civil rights movement and its legacy to inspire participation in civil and human right efforts globally through collections, exhibitions, research, and educational programs. The NCRM annually bestows its prestigious Freedom Award, honoring individuals who have made significant contributions to the cause of freedom.

Past recipients of the Freedom Award include Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter of the United States; South Africa’s Nelson Mandela; Poland’s Lech Walesa; the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev; Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; activists Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Andrew Young and Elie Wiesel; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson.

The 13th annual event, held on October 18, 2004, deservingly honored U2 frontman and DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) cofounder, Bono, with the International Freedom Award and Representative John Lewis (D-Ga) with the National Freedom Award.

The full day and evening of events in celebration of the NCRM honorees began with a public forum in the morning. Held at the historic Temple of Deliverance Church, the forum offered members of the Memphis community, particularly the children, an opportunity to hear the honorees speak about their historic roles in the struggle for civil and human rights and about the challenges still ahead. The event also highlighted achievements of some of the community’s extraordinary children.

After the room filled with hundreds of enthusiastic local school children, Bono and Representative Lewis took their seats in the front row facing the stage. Following a musical dance prelude by local African-style dance troupe Watoto D’Afrika, which Bono visibly enjoyed (as he did every musical performance that morning, by keeping time with his tapping foot and bobbing head and with a smile continuously on his face), NCRM Executive Director Beverly C. Robertson ascended to the podium on the stage.

Behind Robertson stood 12 children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, who were honored for outstanding contributions to their communities. The achievements of each remarkable teen were read aloud and prompted standing ovations.

Following a video introduction, Representative Lewis also received a standing ovation as he prepared to address the gathering. Lewis, the son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, heard Dr. King speak on the radio as a young man and was inspired to get involved in the civil rights movement. He became a young leader in the movement, organizing freedom rides and voter registration campaigns. In August 1963, at only 23 years old, he gave a keynote address at the historic “March on Washington,” which he helped to organize. Lewis also led the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which became known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers attacked more than 600 nonviolent marchers. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Lewis to direct the Federal Volunteer Agency. In 1986, he was elected to Congress, representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, a position he holds to this day.

Lewis spoke about his long journey of equality and how it was an important to make.

“As a young black boy brought up in the heart of the deep south, I saw those signs that said ‘white men,’ ‘colored men,’ ‘white women,’ ‘colored women,’ ‘white waiting,’ ‘colored waiting.’ I’ve tasted the bitter fruits of racial discrimination, and I didn’t like it. So like hundreds of thousands of others, I got involved. Blacks and whites, rich and poor–we got involved, we got in the way, we got in trouble. But when I was growing up in Alabama, my mother and father would tell me not to get in trouble. ‘Don’t get into trouble’ they would say, but I got into trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble, and I wasn’t the only one getting into trouble. During the Sixties, I saw many young students standing up by sitting down. By sitting down and sitting in, they were standing up and speaking out for the best in America–justice, equality, and freedom. Because these students–because nameless and countless individuals from across the country decided to act–we witnessed nothing less than a nonviolent revolution under the rule of law, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.”

When Bono took the stage, he referenced the revolutionary ideas Lewis spoke of and how they inspired him growing up in Ireland.

“The song we wrote 20 years ago, probably to the week, was called ‘Pride (In The Name of Love).’ I could never live up to the songs I sing, but it’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how these big ideas like Martin Luther King’s travel so well? I was an Irish kid who was looking at the problems in his own land–problems of a different kind of segregation between Catholics and Protestants, which was happening in the north of our country. And it’s strange that the message of Dr. King should travel to an Irish budding rock star. But it did, and it changed me forever. They didn’t need cultural explanation; they didn’t need to be translated. You didn’t need to have a PhD to figure them out. Ireland was beset with its own troubles. We were looking for somebody like Dr. King, a black reverend who refused to hate because he thought love showed a better way. Forget the International Freedom Award, I should come to Memphis just to thank you people in the civil rights movement for the lessons you taught the world. Truth is, I know I’m not getting this award for the things that I’ve done. I’m here for the things that I ask other people to do. I’m getting this award for being a pain in the ass.”

Referring to the name of the church, Bono continued, “I’ve played some funky places over the years, but I got the shivers when somebody said, ‘Do you want to talk at the [Bono lowered his voice to a deep bass] Temple of Deliverance?'” After audience laughter, Bono joked, “Temple of Deliverance? More like the Temple of Delinquents! That’s something I’ve spent some time in. And by the looks of some of you, you probably have too, so be careful when you laugh at me.”

Bono was enthusiastic to address the audience of youngsters.

“So what’s it like going to school in Memphis?” he asked. “I must say in Dublin I don’t think school kids would get off a Monday afternoon to go and listen to a rock star. I hope you’re getting some extra credit for this. If the grown-ups ask, that’s what you should tell them,” he joked with the children. “By the way, that is my definition of a rock star: someone who has gotten to my age and hasn’t grown up. If your parents ask you what you learned from me, don’t mention the delinquent thing. Just tell them I said to do whatever John Lewis did.”

Bono then explained his admiration of Memphis and its history: “Growing up in Memphis must be amazing, like living in a history book except the history is alive, walking right among you, living in your neighborhood, sharing your pew at the church, maybe asking for a bite of your sandwich. Amazing! When I came to Memphis, I spent a lot time thinking about what’s happening here and what people from here have made happen. But you’re the ones who are going to write the next chapter in Memphis’ history and in American history, and that’s why I want to talk to you today. I would love to visit Sun Studios, I want to visit Stax, Graceland–but more than that, I want to talk to you today because Memphis, to me, it’s like the city of three Kings. Everybody talks about Elvis Presley, the king of rock. Everyone talks about BB King, the most extraordinary, royal person I’ve ever met. But when I think of Memphis, I think of another King: Martin Luther King. And not because he died here, but because the civil rights movement that cradled him and his ideas seem to feel like Memphis to me. So it’s a bit of a pilgrimage for me.”

Following his remarks, Bono returned to his seat to hear a young, all-female choir from the Stax Music Academy sing “Pride (In The Name of Love),” which concluded the public forum.

Representative Lewis, Bono, and his family then left the church to go to the site of King’s assassination just down the block, where they received a private tour of the NCRM.

As they entered the lobby of the museum, Bono, Ali, and Representative Lewis had a special tour guide in the person of Dr. Benjamin Hooks, NCRM Chairman of the Board and previous Freedom Award winner. The group toured the different rooms and exhibits of the museum for approximately an hour.

One extraordinary caveat of this tour was the rare opportunity the group had to stand out in the normally chained-off area of the balcony, the exact spot marked with a wreath, where Dr. King died. Of standing outside room 306, Bono later said, “They let me stand on the consecrated ground. To stand with these two men [referring to Representative Lewis and Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, an eyewitness to the assassination] who lived their dreams through actions is something that I will never forget. It’s been a very special visit for my family and myself. Standing there with my family, my wife and my kids, on that balcony today with Reverend Kyles talking about the last hours he spent with Dr. King is a very big deal to me, and I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it.”

Bono also has not forgotten his first job: rock-and-roll singer. With a new album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, set to drop worldwide in late November, Bono reconciled his passion for both his occupations at a press conference following the museum tour.

“I’m back at my day job now. We’ve got an album coming out. It’s a thrill to be the lead singer of U2. It really is. This stuff feels to some very removed from being in a rock-and-roll band, but it’s not. If rock and roll means anything, surely it’s liberation: spiritual liberation, political liberation, sexual liberation…whatever. It has always been associated with liberation, and they are not at all antagonistic, being in a band and doing my political work. U2’s audience are very smart, active people. When we did a tour for Amnesty International, they doubled their membership. People who come to our shows want to get off–we are a rock-and-roll band–but they also want to get involved. I’m very excited to be starting back touring again next year. It’s going to be good. This is also who I am, and it started for me reading about Martin Luther King as a 24-year-old and he changed the direction of my life. To come to the Civil Rights Museum now at 27 years old,” Bono smirked, “is an amazing thing. But the circle is not complete, because the work has just started. When Martin Luther King talked about the dream, he was not just talking about the American dream; he was talking about something much bigger. He was talking about equality in the rest of the world.”

Representative Lewis, who was obviously moved by the tour as well, agreed with Bono about the need to globalize the effort.

“I first met Martin Luther King, Jr. when I was 18 years old in 1958. To walk through this museum, to walk through this artistry, tells something about the distance we’ve come, the progress we’ve made, and the distance we still must travel–not only to make America a better place, but to make our world just a little bit better. If Dr. King could speak to us today, he would tell us over and over again that war is obsolete, that violence is obsolete, that the way of peace, the way of love is the better way. I want to commend the National Civil Rights Museum for all that you do and continue to do to keep the dream, to keep the story, and to keep our history alive.”

That history would further be celebrated later in the evening when the banquet and Freedom Award presentation took place. At the banquet, both the American and the Irish flags adorned the stage on the sides of the podium. Many state and local politicians were on hand to give homage to the honorees, among them Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) who noted, “I first met Bono in 2001, and I was impressed by his irrepressible passion. We have teamed together to fight HIV/AIDS.”

Bono and Frist, the Senate’s only current doctor, have traveled together to Africa touring HIV/AIDS care centers.

During the banquet, both Lewis and Bono were presented with a key to the city of Memphis by Councilman Joe Brown. As Bono left the podium, he exclaimed, “Cool. Very cool!”

The finale of the daylong festivities were very cool as well. After the gathering moved from the banquet dining gala to the auditorium, the awards were presented.

In accepting his National Freedom Award (which included a $25,000 honorarium), Lewis communicated the same ideals that have long graced his civil rights and public service record.

“By standing up, sitting in, getting in the way, and getting into trouble, we literally changed not only America, but we changed the world; therefore, the distance we have traveled, we still have many miles to go. The scars and stains of racism remain deeply embedded in our society. Too many of us–black, white, Asian, hispanic, Native American–are being left out and left behind. We continue to poison the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Our challenges do not end at our shores. There is no higher human right than to grow up in a society free of violence and war. There is no greater human right than the right to peace. The quest for peace is as old as the dawn of history and as fresh as the morning dew.”

When Bono approached to accept his International Freedom Award (which included a $50,000 honorarium), he joked, “I am a rock star. I’m a lot of other things, but Dr. Hook and Beverly [Robertson] were willing to overlook them and give me the award anyway.”

On following Lewis, Bono’s extreme admiration was obvious: “Walking on a stage after John Lewis is like the Monkees going on after the Beatles. It’s just a very, very big honor to be onstage with John Lewis. I’d be honored to be anywhere with John Lewis, but this is one of the great Americans–one of the greatest Americans who ever sat down at a lunch counter in Memphis. That’s for sure,” he said as the audience applauded in agreement. “One of the greatest Americans who ever marched across a bridge in Selma!”

As the applause built, so did Bono’s animation: “One of the greatest Americans who ever walked the halls of Congress, John Lewis. I am proud to be on a stage with him.” Bono smiled and then began to sing, “And when I saw your face, I’m a believer. That’s the Monkees,” he informed the room already filled with laughter.

In accepting his award, Bono made those in attendance aware of the cold, hard facts about AIDS in Africa.

“Six and a half thousand Africans dying every day of a preventable, treated disease for a lack of drugs you can get in any pharmacy. That’s not a cause, is it?” Bono questioned the entire audience, as if he were speaking to just one person. “That’s an emergency. That’s why I’m here. I’m not a rock star with a cause. I’m a rock star talking about an emergency. Eleven million AIDS orphans in Africa, 20 million by the end of the decade–that is not a cause, is it?” he asked, this time getting some responses of “No!” His voice gathering momentum, he continued, “That’s an emergency. A whole missing generation of active adults wiped out, children bringing up other children–that’s not a cause, is it? That’s…” Bono extended his hands toward the audience asking them to answer. They responded with equal passion, “An emergency!”

He then called back to them, “Amen!” and a big smile swept his face as he exclaimed, “I’m black. Wow!”

Feeling the part of preacher-behind-the-pulpit, Bono loosened his tie from around his shirt collar. “Preachin’,” he said–interrupted by someone shouting out “Preach, Bono!”–“that’s today, tomorrow, and every other day for the rest of the year. They say 9,000 Africans will catch HIV because of stigmatization and lack of education. That’s not a cause,” he stopped and held his hands up to the audience who feverishly replied, “That’s an emergency!” Bono concluded, “Amen.”

“All of the above bewildering facts are, of course, Africa’s crisis. But that we are so numb to it that it does not make the nightly news, well, that is our crisis. It’s not news to men like John Lewis. He’s had his eye on Africa for many decades now. I think it was 1964, he and some of his compatriots took a trip to Africa, the continent freeing itself in large part from the shackles of colonialism. They went to Senegal, they went to Guinea, and they were there as Zambia raised its flag for the very first time–a new country’s independence day. When John Lewis got back he wrote a letter to the SNCC and he said in it, ‘I am convinced more than ever that the social, economic, and political destiny of the black people of America is inseparable from that of our brothers in Africa.’ Wow. There’s a prophetic utterance if I ever heard one. ‘Inseparable’ was the word he used and it’s more true today than ever before. Not just for black people of America, but for all people of America–in fact, for the people of Ireland and the people of the rest of the world. Distance no longer determines who is our neighbor. Our destinies are linked, our fates are one. It’s a fact. The war against terror is bound up in the war against poverty. I didn’t say that. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that. When a military man starts talking like a hippy, we should perhaps listen. The perpetrators of 9/11, they may have been wealthy Saudis, but they found sanctuary and they found succor in the collapsed state that was Afghanistan. There are potentially many more Afghanistans in Africa. In tense, nervous times, isn’t it cheaper to make friends of potential enemies than to defend yourself against them later?” Bono queried, drawing thunderous applause.

“Amen!” he continued. “Isn’t it cheaper and simpler to prevent the fires than to have them put out later?” he said over the clapping. “Some say we can’t afford to. I say we can’t afford not to. Our journey of equality, it’s a long journey, but we will see the Promised Land. I do believe we’re going to get there.”

As the day’s moving festivities concluded, everyone joined hands and voices to sing the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome.”

There is a big, black gate outside one section of the NCRM. Stenciled out from within it is a quote from Dr. King: “I MAY NOT GET THERE WITH YOU, BUT I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT WE AS A PEOPLE WILL GET TO THE PROMISED LAND.”

If we dare to follow the courageous example set by this year’s National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award recipients, John Lewis and Bono, we will get there sooner than we think.

All photos by Ruth Barohn for Please do not use the photos that appear here on your website or forum without explicit permission.