Memphis is an amazing place. There’s so much to see – do – and experience. On our first full day in Memphis, Jody and I barely scratched the surface of the city’s music scene. We ended our day too exhausted even to visit Beale Street. Our 2nd day in Memphis we switched gears and the focus was on the struggle for civil rights. For me, Memphis is the nexus for the Civil Rights Movement of my youth. I could not leave town without visiting the National Civil Rights Museum.
The National Civil Right Museum is a complex of museums and buildings built around the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The museum tells King’s story as well as examining the entire American civil rights movement. As you walk through the museum you walk through history, era by era. There are lots of museums that chronicle aspects or episodes of the civil rights movement in the US but this is where part of that history was actually made. Before entering the museum, you can view the second-story balcony where King was standing when he was killed.
The African-American struggle for equal treatment started long before the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. The museum tells the story of this struggle from the arrival of the first slaves in North Carolina to the present day. From Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and John Brown to Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, the museum educates the public on the Civil Rights Movement and its influence on human rights movements worldwide.
I could not walk thru this history without being moved. I lived much of this history of the Civil Rights Movement. It is hard to believe that this took place in my lifetime. The museum is compelling and dynamic. It presents the best and the worst of the civil rights era to its visitors. The museum exhibits illustrate chapters of the fight for civil rights in our country in order to promote better understanding of the struggles involved. These exhibits travel through history beginning with the days of slavery in the 17th century right through the 20th century’s fights for equality. Included in the exhibits are photographs, newspaper accounts, listening post, and three-dimensional scenes depicting civil rights events.
You can sit on a bus and be ordered to give up your seat or be arrested, as Rosa Parks was in Montgomery, AL in 1955. The call went out to boycott the bus system. 70% of the people riding the Montgomery buses were black women. The boycott lasted for 13 months. This had a major economic impact, but it impacted in other ways. Many of the black women were maids, their white women employers started carpools for them. It became one of the first women’s grassroots movement.
You can view a replica of the Greyhound bus that a crowd in Anniston, AL firebombed in 1961. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, determined to burn the Freedom Riders to death. An exploding fuel tank caused the mob to retreat, allowing the riders to escape the bus. As they exited the bus they were savagely beaten by the mob.
You can visit a jail cell like the one in Birmingham, AL in which dozens of teenagers were crammed after being arrested for participating in civil rights marches during which they were attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses whose water was forceful enough to strip the bark off trees.
You can watch a film training young college students how to stage a Lunch Counter Sit-In, how to protect themselves non-violently during the inevitable beating, and who to call to be bailed out when jailed for peaceful resistance. You will see both black and white students together staging a sit-in at a lunch counter. The non-violent sit-ins of the 60’s were the first time the movement became visibly integrated.
You can view Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, which Martin Luther King shared with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleague, Ralph Abernathy, on the night before his assassination. The night before he was shot he made his final public appearance to a crowd of 4,000 people and made the eerie“Mountaintop” speech. (“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”)
At the exit, visitors are joined by a shadow of people marching and holding protest signs, suggesting the civil rights struggle continues today. America’s civil rights story did not end with the death of Martin Luther King. The museum presents us with a call to action. The “Join the Movement” area encourages visitors to take lessons from the 20th century movement and apply them to today’s challenges – like poverty, women’s rights, war and racial integration. Visitors are invited to touch an issue and vote on a way to take a stand.
This museum should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Memphis.
(This post was originally published in October, 2015. I am republishing it today in honor of Black History Month.)