National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
A wreath marks the balcony room where Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr. was shot at the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis, which is now the National Civil Rights Museum. (Fletcher/Newbern photo)
An emotional rollercoaster awaits at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Visitors often react strongly to exhibits where they can step onto the bus with Rosa Parks and hear the driver bark: “Please move to the back of the bus. I need that seat now!”; sit across from the four African-American college students who were refused service in 1960 at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and learn about sit-ins that soon followed in Rock Hill, S.C., and other locations; see the battered, burned 1961 Freedom Riders bus; and hear the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last.
Yet, most powerful and moving is the silence as people reverently pass alongside Rooms 306 and 307, left just as they were when Dr. King and those accompanying him spent their final hours before the unthinkable occurred.
50 Years Since the Unthinkable Happened
The museum was established in 1991 and comprises two buildings — the former Lorraine Motel, where 39-year-old King was assassinated at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968, and the Legacy Building, formerly the boarding house from which the assassin fired that fatal shot. This year marks the 50th anniversary. A permanent wreath marks the spot where King was standing — on the balcony in front of Room 306.
Yes, the museum pays tribute to the man who fueled the civil rights movement, but the movement itself is the message, more current than ever.
For the 50th, instead of dwelling on King’s death, the focus is MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here?, the title of his last book as well as a 1967 speech he delivered at the 11th annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention.
The museum’s Faith Morris said, “Dr. King addressed poverty, fair housing, employment, non-violence, justice, education.” She repeats his words: “Where do we go from here?” poignantly adding, “Civil Rights is not a spectator sport.”
The museum’s World in Transition gallery reminds visitors how things have changed yet remain the same.
The Dream Continues
In the Lorraine Hotel, twenty-four permanent exhibits begin at the year 1619 with the global impact of slavery and end with a view of where he spent his last hours on earth.
Hundreds of artifacts and photos enliven learning, while numerous film clips captivate and evoke raw emotion. The museum not only chronicles a tumultuous period but encourages involvement through its Join the Movement exhibit where smart-table, touch technology allows visitors to take a stand on nonviolence, women’s rights, war, riots, poverty and integration.
A $27.5 million renovation in 2013 and 2014, including 40 new films, oral histories and interactive media, resulted in a one-of-a-kind experience that has received numerous accolades.
On April 4, 2018, there will be speakers, presentations, laying of a wreath and a moment of silence, but the emphasis will be on living King’s message of positive change.
For information about the museum and other Memphis attractions, visit AAA.com or call 800-398-0379 to speak with your local AAA Travel Agent.
(This story appeared in Mar/April 2018 AAA Go Magazine in the Carolinas. All rights reserved.)