For anyone who wants a full-bodied, multi-dimensional and vivid experience in African-American history, there are few places that are more compelling than the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
The museum is located at the historic Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. But the museum, which is under a now-kicking off $26 million renovation, is far more than a place that offers a retrospective of the killing of the civil rights leader.
There are displays in the museum that offer a comprehensive view of the African-American experience that dates back to the early protests against slavery in the 17th century and the highlights of the abolitionist movement. In addition, throughout the museum there are a number of screens that show old television clips of some of the most chilling interviews and scenes depicting racism against African-Americans in history.
For example, there was a televised interview with Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus in 1957, when he was taking a strong stand against the desegregation of the Little Rock public schools. Faubus became infamous for his role in seeking to defy President Eisenhower’s effort in getting Black students to enroll at Little Rock’s Central High School.
There is television footage on display of the brutal forces of Birmingham’s police chief, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who used police attack dogs and fire hoses against peaceful African-Americans demonstrating for civil rights in Alabama.
There are also screens with footage of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, where integrated groups of young people, mostly college students, rode interstate buses to segregated lunch counters, restaurants and waiting rooms throughout the South.
The museum not only offers clips of the Freedom Riders being trained in methods to absorb racist responses, verbally and physically; it also depicts the strong views of white onlookers — many of whom respond to the prospect of racially integrated facilities with horror.
One of the highlights of the museum tour is an exhibit depicting the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with an old municipal bus that visitors can walk through, complete with a life-sized figure of the bus driver and of Rosa Parks. It was her refusal in 1955 to obey bus driver James F. Blake’s order to give up her seat for a white passenger that ignited the civil rights movement. A visitor boarding the bus can hear a recording of the driver, ordering passengers to go to the back of the bus.
However, the most compelling portion of the museum are the two rooms — 306 and 307 — of the old Lorraine Motel, the rooms assigned to King and close SCLC associate Dr. Ralph Abernathy, respectively, on that final day of King’s life in April 1968. The rooms are preserved to look exactly as they did in 1968, down to the old rotary telephones.
Museum guests can then leave that part of the museum and walk through a tunnel to the adjacent building, from which the shots were fired that killed King. That portion of the museum includes information and displays on James Earl Ray, who was convicted in 1969 of assassinating King. However, there are displays that take into account some of the lingering doubts about Ray’s guilt (members of the King family also later stated that they thought Ray was innocent).
The museum’s roots go back to the mid-1980s, when a group of prominent Memphis citizens formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, later changing its name to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation. Under the leadership of D’Army Bailey, a Memphis attorney and activist, the foundation raised enough money to purchase the property on the courthouse steps at a public auction for $144,000. The museum was dedicated in 1991.
Significant changes are soon on the way for the museum — Gwen Harmon, the government and community relations director, said that the renovation will include new exhibits, including an expanded section for the Black Panthers. “We want to dispel some of the myths surrounding them,” she said. “They had free breakfast and lunch programs for the community, which is something that people don’t generally know.”
So far, more than $19 million has been raised for the $26 million renovation, which is scheduled to be completed by 2014.
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(Photo: AP Photo/National Civil Rights Museum,Lisa Waddell Buser)