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Tarik Black holds on to lessons from National Civil Rights Museum

Rockets forward grew up in the museum where his mother worked

Houston Rockets forward Tarik Black grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and spent much of his childhood at the National Civil Rights Museum, where his mother, Judith Moore, worked in public relations for two years.

The 26-year-old Black shares his memories of the museum and how its lessons and the people he met there helped shape him.

My family and I often would sit in the living room of the house my mother grew up in, listening to my grandfather — who was born in 1916 in rural Fayette County, Tennessee — lecture us about our heritage. This took place every time we went to visit my grandparents. It is obvious why my mother was drawn to work for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

During my mother’s tenure in the museum’s public relations department, I spent years in the back hallways running around with my brothers. We would play hide-and-go-seek, regularly bumping into staff members and holding conversations about school and our various interests. While we were too young to soak in all the museum had to offer, I often sit back and reminisce about those times.

I remember the exhibits, videos and writings that depicted the movement that would change this country for the better. Walking through the exhibit as a young man, I remember asking my mother what the shackles were about in the beginning of the tour. She talked to me about slavery and the tools used for bondage. It is an ugly truth, but the truth indeed. Later in the tour, you walk up to a diner serving counter. You see young African-American men and women seated with a server. This activation is interactive, so the server starts yelling at the young men and women. Food is dumped on their heads and they are refused service. I was young when I was walking through the tour, so this was scary to me. Not necessarily because of what the man was saying, but the screaming was terrifying. Now as an adult, I cannot fathom actually being one of the people called such names and being screamed at so ferociously. I understand in maturity what the young men and women were experiencing in that moment.

It is heartbreaking at this age to think about the bus that is blown up in the middle of the museum depicting a bus bombing that took place in 1961 in Alabama. I grew up walking through these exhibits, soaking in the history of this country, walking onto the bus activation and sitting beside a model of Rosa Parks as a bus driver screams at you to leave the bus in the most obnoxious way. Then the bus driver threatens to call the police. It stays with you to not even be a teenager but learn the truth in detail. To see what is behind the mask.

Then there is hope. I believe hope and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are synonymous. I would always go stand and watch him speak on the monitor in front of hundreds of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial. Even as an adolescent captivated by his message, what he was saying resonated with me. Of course, being the prolific speaker Rev. King was, he spoke over my head but I could understand what he was getting at. It wasn’t until later that I understood the biblical references, constitutional excerpts and the crafty grammar. He brought about so much change, with resistance, but it worked.

That was until you walk upstairs and see the infamous Lorraine Motel balcony where Rev. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. You see the room made up to fashion how the rooms were when he stayed at the motel. Replica cars are parked out front. When I was growing up that was the end of the exhibit, but later the museum bought the building from which Rev. King was shot. They made that building a case study for Rev. King’s assassination, raising the question of were we told the truth about the assassination, and opening evidence that compels one to argue for a conspiracy. There is a lot of evidence that points to the conspiracy being true, but there has been no admission of it.

I have a lot of fond memories of my adventures volunteering for the museum for its various events. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela and Dr. Paul Rusesabagina at the annual Freedom Awards (an awards gala the museum has every year to celebrate national and international touchstones of philanthropy and people who fight against social injustice). When I was 12 years old or so, I was attending the Freedom Awards as an aspiring athlete watching Magic Johnson speak about his works in giving back. He spoke of his basketball legacy as a vehicle and platform to reach those who are in need. He told of how basketball did not define him but enabled his greater calling of philanthropy. That inspired me so much and has been my creed since I’ve flourished in basketball.

Years before, I was volunteering and my mother was instructing us young volunteers on our duties. Oprah walked by, tapped my mother on her shoulder and told her, “Nice outfit, girl.” My mother is a strong woman, but in that moment she almost fainted. I saw her eyes roll back a little and her knees were buckling. She did not drop, though.

When I was really young, the museum had a group of young men and women greet Mandela as he walked off the plane to receive his Freedom Award. I remember, year after year, getting fitted for tuxedos preparing to volunteer and having the ability to meet some of the most influential people in the world. These things blow my mind as I think about who these people truly are and how much they’ve accomplished. I am very fortunate to have had these opportunities. These lessons, opportunities and time itself have crafted me to be the man I am today.

My grandfather would always leave us with this saying: “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from.” I have been blessed to grow up in the museum learning where I come from, and it is a huge instrument in influencing where I am going.

Liner Notes

Senior NBA writer Marc J. Spears helped bring this story to life. It has been edited for clarity.

Tarik Black is a forward for the Houston Rockets. He grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and played for the University of Memphis before transferring to the University of Kansas.