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National Civil Rights Museum
450 Mulberry St.
Memphis, TN 38103
This stunning facility is made up of several unified buildings – a new structure adjoins the shell of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and across the street is the boarding house from which the fatal bullet came.
You go through exhibits made up of state-of-the-art graphics, photographs, multimedia and interactive displays, and artifacts which explain the whole history of the Civil Rights movement, starting well before the Civil War and working step by step through the underground railroad, school integration, Jim Crow laws, soda fountain sit-ins, bus boycotts, marches on Washington and so much more.
It cumulates in a hallway positioned between two recreated motel rooms; one a typical one, all made up for the day, the other in a rumpled state, just as it was when its occupant decided to step outside on the balcony. The railing outside has borne a wreath since hours after 6pm, April 4, 1968. This is holy ground, reverent and inspiring silent contemplation as you listen to Mahalia Jackson singing a lament in the background. We dare you to not be moved by this spot.
From there you cross the street and enter a tunnel that takes you upstairs to a recreation of the tawdry room occupied by James Earl Ray. From the seedy bathroom you can see how easy it was to take aim at that balcony across the street.
This section also contains a broader perspective on the meaning and affects of assassination from Yitzhak Rabin to Harvey Milk (shown as stars on the constellation as it would've appeared in Memphis on the night of April 4, 1968) plus an interesting look at the lingering questions of whether or not King’s assassin acted alone.
The man overseeing the door encouraged us not to linger upstairs but quickly move along to the exhibits on the first floor, which emphasize “our accomplishments.”
He said, “You know how Katie Couric started last night? She couldn’t have done that a few years ago. That’s part of the accomplishments.” He’s overlooking Barbara and Connie, of course, but we got his point, and more importantly, his optimism and attitude; why focus on such an ugly and tragic moment? Why not look forward?
The exhibits in toto were so profound we couldn’t really say anything for a long time after, and we aren’t any better at finding the right words now. The one thing that struck us was how massive and seemingly impossible the task was and how each victory was just a small chip away at an edifice that surely would never fall. And yet it did.
That’s where the man at the door was right; it never truly ends. We may have won the battle to desegregate schools but today are higher rates of unemployment for African-Americans; Jim Crow law were declared illegal (and immoral) but there are still women who make less average wages than men and gay people can still be fired from their jobs in 37 states because of their sexuality. We truly honor the incredible work those people did by continuing their struggle in all areas of injustice, and never giving up, because it’s also never truly hopeless.
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