Dedrick Asante’s virtual reality headset made the scene outside Memphis’ Lorraine Motel seem so real, so vivid, it was hard to believe the events he was seeing weren’t unfolding at that very moment.
He wanted to run across that crumbling parking lot, to where the Rev. Martin Luther King stood on the balcony and yell a warning to go back inside before it was too late — even though Asante knew that in fact, it was more than 51 years too late. Then he heard a shot ring out, and Asante’s goggles went black.
“That’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done,” Asante, 46, of Columbia said after completing the 15-minute, immersive virtual reality experience that took participants to the scene of the assassination on April 4, 1968.
The “I Am a Man” Civil Rights Movement virtual reality project was created by Derek Ham, an assistant professor of graphic design at North Carolina State University in collaboration with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The experience was among the activities offered as part of the Reginald Lewis Museum’s MLK Day Celebration, with headsets and narration provided by a local entrepreneurs Glenna Cush and Aaron Rice of Experience Garden.
“I know a lot about the civil rights movement, but that had me thinking new things and feeling new things," Asante said. "I knew he was about to be killed. I could feel all the pain and rage of that day.”
Hundreds of events honoring King’s legacy were held Monday throughout Maryland. Activities ranged from volunteering at local charities to a public call by Sonja Santelises, CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools, and other education officials urging legislators to adopt the so-called Kirwan Commission’s recommendations for improving Maryland’s public schools.
But perhaps no organization sponsored more events than the Lewis, Maryland’s largest museum of African American history and culture. More than 1,200 people were expected to attend, according to Jackie Copeland, the museum’s executive director.
The virtual reality experience was new to the Lewis this year, and Copeland said it might have the greatest impact on kids, for whom the events of 1968 can seem unimaginably distant.
For instance, Asante’s 8-year-old daughter Jemison participated in a slightly less intense VR experience that featured stories of discrimination experienced by African Americans who traveled through the South during the Jim Crow era.
“I felt like I was part of it," Jem said. “Sometimes when people talk, they don’t say the whole truth about what happened. But it’s harder to lie when you see it happening right in front of you.”
Also new for the Lewis’ 2020 King Day celebration was a booth in which participants recorded oral histories of personal struggles against injustice.
“A lot of folks who participated in the civil rights movement are getting up in age," Copeland said. "If we don’t collect their experiences now, they’ll be lost for good.”
Joyce Dennison, 78, of Baltimore stood before the cameras and described her efforts to integrate the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center in the mid-1960s. At the time, Dennison said, African Americans “were allowed inside the shopping center. But we couldn’t try on any of the clothes or go to the movie theater.”
She told her interviewer that she and about 20 of her fellow students at Morgan State University received two months of training in nonviolent protest techniques before attempting to desegregate the strip mall. The protesters were taught not to respond to even extreme provocation.
“Sometimes, you got coffee poured on you,” she said. “Sometimes, you got spit on. You just gritted your teeth and tried to bear in mind that your purpose was to gain equal treatment and civil rights.”
A different perspective on history was provided by author Sharon Langley, who read from her new picture book, “A Ride to Remember,” which chronicles the outcome of the contested effort to integrate Gwynn Oak Park. Written with Amy Nathan, the book tells the story of how the author became the first black child to ride the famous carousel there on integration day: Aug. 28, 1963.
At the time, Sharon was one month shy of her first birthday — too young to retain memories of her historic ride. But for the next several decades, she listened as family members told and retold the story of that day. Now, more than half a century later,Langley still loves merry-go-rounds. They have no beginning and no end, she writes in her book. There are no leaders and no one gets left behind.
“Fighting for social change was one of the values that was important to our family,” she said. “The park was integrated on the same day that Dr. King led his famous march on Washington. My ride symbolized that his ideals were starting to come true.”