The walk south from downtown Memphis to the National Civil Rights Museum, even on a bright summer day, is an eerie one. From historic Beale Street, home of the blues and Memphis’ own Vegas strip, packed with music clubs, bars, souvenir shops and, at night, a blinding neon glow—the journey is only a few blocks; yet the transition in landscape is stark, as commerce & activity give way to abandoned buildings, vacant lots and what feels like an almost psychic handprint of death left on the area from a cataclysmic event almost forty years old.
As one approaches the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4th, 1968 and which, refurbished, now houses the museum, one understands why. The front facade of the motel remains intact, with two circa 60’s cars parked outside, just underneath the second-floor porch where King was hit. Across the street is the Main Street Rooming House where James Earl Ray took aim with his shotgun. It is impossible, in this setting frozen in time, not to be transported back to that instant when the hopeful momentum of the modern civil rights movement was struck at its heart. In the few blocks surrounding the motel, one finds an area that has never fully recovered.
“I knew Walter. I grew up as a kid here.” Girl Lee Thomas reminisces about Walter Shipley, the original owner of the Lorraine, on this day of her first visit to the museum. She had been too young to remember the shooting, but she does remember as the motel fell into disrepair, and ultimately into foreclosure.
“He named it after his wife Lorraine. I never met her. She died of a brain hemorrhage a few hours after Dr. King was shot. “ She points to the two rooms directly above the 2 cars. “Walter kept these 2 rooms in remembrance, Dr. King’s and one for his wife.”
Opened in 1991, the museum came about through the efforts of a memorial foundation started in King’s name by a group of concerned Memphians, who had watched as the historically significant site deteriorated in the years following his death. After securing the property in public auction the foundation received donations from businesses, unions and the City of Memphis itself, and broke ground in Sept 1987.
A tour of the exhibits winds its way through the gutted expanse of the former motel, as a visitor follows along on headphones. Starting in 1619 with the slave trade, the exhibit begins by detailing the African-American struggle, in its various forms, against servitude: escape, sabotage, feigning illness while being bought & sold on the auction block, violence, and later, using the press, the courts, and petitioning politicians.
Dred Scott’s attempt to win freedom in the courts failed when his contention that he had become a free man while travelling to Illinois & Minnesota, northern states, was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court, which countered that he became a slave again upon returning to Missouri. The US Supreme Court upheld that ruling, adding that the Declaration of Independence & the Constitution did not pertain to African-Americans.
Harriet Tubman, taking a different tack, toted a gun as she led hundreds of slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad, threatening to shoot any evacuee whose resolve waned mid-trip and compromised the others’ safety.
These and other activities, along with the moral high ground adopted by the North to obscure their own economic interests in the Civil War, brought about constitutional amendments as Congress sought to “reconstruct” the South. The 13th, 14th & 15th amendments, respectively, prohibited slavery, gave full rights of citizenship to anyone born in the US, and granted voting rights to any male regardless of color. Their enactment set the stage for legal recognition of African-Americans’ rights (for males, anyway) while at the same time inciting resentment among many Southern whites.
In protest, the South established the Jim Crow laws, regional practices of discrimination that defied the Federal laws and further entrenched disparity between the races. In this climate, blacks were denied education, became victims of lynchings and found their tormentor in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski,TN in 1866. The struggle of the century to follow focused on asserting rights granted by the US government, while challenging the social conventions that prevented true equality.
One continues in the museum beyond this historical timeline into the first of a snaking series of rooms, which make up the greater part of the building. This area is devoted to the modern civil rights movement, generally considered to have begun with the landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in May of 1954. This Supreme Court ruling overturned the 1896 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson which had granted “separate but equal” public facilities--that by virtue of the social climate made them inherently unequal.
This modern movement occurred in the era of television, and was still recent enough to be in the memories of those involved; the individual exhibits, therefore, include video footage and artifacts of the day, making the impact more arresting. The faces of hate in an angry mob trying to prevent a little girl from going to school says more, in an instant, about visceral human nature than a history book could convey.
Nearby is a lunch counter that, at first glance, could be mistaken for a museum snack bar, complete with salt, ketchup, fixtures, etc. Life-size gray figures sit at the stools as similar figures stand over them menacingly. Footage used to train protesters & prepare them for the indignities to come rolls on the wall behind them. The scene is so authentic, that from one’s peripheral vision one can feel the confrontational energy of the student sit-ins that began in 1960 at the Greensboro, NC Woolworth’s store. These sit-ins, repeated elsewhere by other students, went far in helping to integrate public facilities throughout the South. The four original protesters were served six months later at the same Woolworth’s counter that had previously refused them.
The space nearby is dominated by a burnt-out bus, much like the one that left Washington DC for New Orleans in May 1960. The bus had been packed with “Freedom Riders” intent on exposing illegal segregation on public transportation. Their vehicle was set on fire by an angry mob in Anniston, Alabama. The scorched and melted interior & exterior prompts one to contemplate the depth of aggression that would threaten human life in such a way. Like many of the exhibits, this one exemplifies hate in one of its cruder forms.
Just beyond is an original Montgomery, Alabama bus, like the one on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the “colored” section. A sign invites one to step on and take a seat. If one dares to sit near the front, a voice comes from the direction of the driver—a gray, faceless figure in a driver’s uniform—and demands one to move towards the back. It becomes increasingly hostile if the warning is not heeded, until finally it threatens arrest by the local police. Ms. Park’s arrest in Dec of 1955 prompted a bus boycott by the local black community that lasted a year and ended ultimately in desegregating the bus system. As head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Martin Luther King Jr. helped spearhead this boycott.
King figures more & more prominently as the tour progresses. A young minister from Atlanta who arrived in Montgomery to accept a church position, he quickly assumed leadership of the boycott, and a month later, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became its president. Its mandate was to confront discrimination with civil disobedience & non-violence, a practice that had already been challenged when the minister’s home was bombed during the boycott.
Throughout the next dozen years, King set an example by meeting aggression with behavior that was, in his words, “on the high plane of dignity and discipline”. An actual cellblock sets the stage for the audio presentation of his recollections, “Notes from A Birmingham Jail.” Video of the 1963 March on Washington replays his speech, “I Have A Dream” in front of a crowd of 210,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. Photographs and words paint a picture of a man tireless in his efforts to bring his race justice in the face of intensely violent resistance, while trying to quell the growing militant factions impatient for change.
His decision to come to Memphis that fateful April in 1968 was not only to lend support to local African American Sanitation Workers’ Union seeking equal pay and treatment by the city. The Mayor had declared the strike illegal, and tension was reaching a boiling point as daily protests and riots whipped the city into a lather. King felt the principle of non-violence was being threatened, and the SCLC thought his presence might ease the frustration, and prevent angry splinter factions bent on confrontation from taking over the tone of the movement.
The exhibit ends at the two rooms overlooking Mulberry Street. Across the way one can see the window where James Earl Ray stood. In King’s room, from behind glass, one can see the table littered with half-filled coffee cups, cigarette butts snubbed out in saucers, some chairs and a disarranged bed that seems to have served as more seating for King’s associates. One can place figures in that room, strategizing, joking, showing frustration, feeling impatience. It does not appear that there was much resting done in that room. And forty years later, that energy seems to be caught in a warp that keeps it vibrating—and continues to teach us something about ourselves.