April 4, 1968, was a dark day for Tennessee. On that evening Martin Luther King Jr., the best-known Civil Rights leader of all-time, was shot and killed while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. It was, in many ways, the culmination of a movement that, during the 1950s and 1960s, turned the United States from a completely segregated society into a mostly integrated one. Life in Tennessee is nothing like it was before the Civil Rights Movement.
After King's murder, the Lorraine Motel declined because many people no longer wanted to stay there. Eventually the motel was closed, and for several years it looked as if it would be torn down. But in the early 1980s activists in Memphis began promoting the idea of converting the building into a civil rights museum. In 1991 the National Civil Rights Museum opened to the public; today it is one of the most fascinating places to visit in the state.
Before you visit the National Civil Rights Museum, we suggest you learn a few things about the Civil Rights Movement. There are hundreds of books on the subject, and the Tennessee History for Kids textbooklet Raise the children the best you can -- click here to see how you can get one -- tells you a lot about the Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you read about this period in American history:
- How was society different in the 1950s than it is today?
- When did the struggle for civil rights between people of different races begin?
- What types of tactics did civil rights workers use?
It is very important, for instance, to understand that the Civil Rights Movement didn't just happen; it was carefully planned after years of training and years of planning (and some of that training and planning occurred in Tennessee). It is also extremely important to understand that King's base philosophy was that of non-violent protest and resistance, and that the American Civil Rights Movement was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who led India's nationalist movement against Great Britain. Because of this, there is a display that pays tribute to Gandhi at the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum starts sooner than you might expect. It points out, rightfully so, that African-Americans struggle for equal treatment started long before the 1960s. Among the people you will see at the museum's many displays are Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Ida Wells, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois.
The focus of the museum eventually shifts to the 1960s; the formation of non-violent organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and more extreme organizations such as the Black Panthers; key events such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; the sit-in movements; and marches such as the one from Selma to Montgomery.
The 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man is considered to be the spark that ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement. The National Civil Rights Museum contains a Montgomery bus from that era identical to the one on which this occurred. On that bus, which visitors are free to walk on, you will find a statue of Rosa Parks.
Here you see one of the better museum displays -- the one that depicts the sit-in movement. Sit-ins occurred at many places across the South, and succeeded in integrating restaurants in many cities (including Nashville). The figures you see here were, in fact, created based on photographs that were taken during Nashville's sit-ins. The film that is continuously shown features interviews with Nashville leaders and with some of the participants in the sit-ins there.
The museum explains that Martin Luther King was in Memphis in 1968 because of a strike by garbage workers. In this centerpiece display you see the three images of the city that dominated the media at that time: garbage, protestors, and National Guardsmen.
By this time you have worked your way to the actual room in which Dr. Martin Luther King slept (which is behind glass and therefore does not photograph well). If you are like us, by the time you get to this part of the museum, you've forgotten that all this time you've been walking around in a converted motel. The Lorraine Motel, where King was staying, was at that time one of the nicer motels in a predominantly black section of Memphis. King had stayed at the Lorraine many times before, and the museum has two rooms on display: one in which he normally stayed, and the other, in which he actually did on the night of April 3.
The museum then shifts across the street; you go through a tunnel and up an elevator to the former boarding house from where James Earl Ray was later convicted of shooting King. Here you will find a plethora of material on the actual assassination; including much of the evidence that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation used to convict Ray for the crime. There are people who believe that Ray had accomplices, but that none of those accomplices were ever accused or tried for their roles. If you would like to know more about this theory, visit the museum and decide for yourself.
Please be aware that the National Civil Right Museum is a private organization and that there is a fee for admission.