We’d touched down in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of a Tennessee heatwave, but on this, our last day in Memphis, the sky was ominously deep with cloud and the promise of rain. It almost seemed a portent for our destination of the day: a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. Writing about this has been on my mind for a long, long time – more than a year now – and I’ve held back. I didn’t think I could do this place justice. I still don’t, but I’m going to try my very best. Visiting the Museum is a visceral reminder that we need to do better and it can shake your perspective.
National Civil Rights Museum: Getting There
We’d been following the music from Nashville down the Mississippi Delta via Brownsville to Clarksdale and then back up to Memphis. It had been an epic journey all round. Our ears had been gladdened every step of the journey, from Broadway in Nashville to Ground Zero and the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and the sheer beauty that was Dockery Farm, home of the blues. In Memphis, we’d been to Sun, Stax, Rock n Soul, the Hall of Fame and of course, to Beale Street. Still with a head full of music, we’d juggled our days to make this our last port of call.
The National Civil Rights Museum is at Mulberry Street, Memphis. It’s not far from downtown, nor the river landings. It opens every day except Tuesday from 9am-5pm. I’d advise that you get there early, as it took us most of the day for our visit. I’d also recommend that you don’t plan anything too upbeat afterwards. It will take a while for your brain to process what you’ve just seen and learned. We ended up taking a riverboat trip on the Island Queen late that afternoon, and that gave us time to just sit back and reflect.
Come with me, and I’ll take you through some of the exhibits that had the greatest effect on me. Be prepared to feel all kinds of emotions here: guilt, anger, pain, sorrow, inadequacy, hope.
“THERE LIVED … A PEOPLE WHO HAD THE MORAL COURAGE TO STAND UP FOR THEIR RIGHTS AND THEREBY THEY INJECTED A NEW MEANING INTO THE VEINS OF HISTORY AND OF CIVILIZATION.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
National Civil Rights Museum: Outside
As you arrive at the Museum, your eyes are drawn to the iconic Lorraine Motel sign. To one side, instead of prices and offers, it now bears the words “I have a dream…”. As you head to the museum entrance, you walk past the motel room, with the wreath tied to the balcony.
The cars parked outside are there to set the historical context for the Lorraine Motel, rather than being directly connected to Dr King
I didn’t realise just how recently the Museum opened – established in 1991 and renovated in 2014 – and you can see evidence of its sponsors in the brickwork outside. As someone who has spent most of their working and volunteering life in the justice sector, this brick had a particular resonance for me.
Part of the brickwork on the path that leads to the entrance of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It’s now part of the MLK50 commemoration in an expanded form:
No justice, no peace, Know justice, know peace
Civil Rights: A Culture of Resistance
The first permanent exhibit you find at the Museum is focused on slavery in America from 1619-1861. This exhibit serves to create a profound impact on you right from the start of your visit. It uses a powerful combination of sounds – music and conversation – set against dim lighting to create an oppressive sense of being below decks on a transport ship.
Below decks, chained and bound, on the transit ship to America
Normally I’d not use such a dark and blurry image, but here it gives a strong sense of the oppressive conditions. Picture yourself, bound, chained, with no room to even stretch out your legs, and in a space without room to stand. Even if you don’t have a claustrophobic bone in your body, that’s a horrendous setting. It sets the tone for the combination of fear, horror and sorrow that marks your visit here at the Museum.
In the circular gallery of this exhibit, you walk the floor map of Europe, Africa and North and South America.
Tracing the routes from Africa to Europe and North and South America
One of the features of the National Civil Rights Museum is the use of beauty in art and poetry to make the horror of what you are seeing and hearing even more stark. This beautiful script and the use of coloured lighting at floor level brings a whole extra level of impact to the exhibit.
Civil Rights: Jim Crow
We walked through the timeline of legislation and amendments that granted rights to African Americans, Then came the laws and Supreme Court decisions that removed these gains. “Separate but Equal” became the law of the land. We heard people’s accounts of life under Jim Crow.
If you’ve ever been to the site of Culloden battlefield near Inverness, Scotland, the approach to sharing history is very similar. Throughout both museums, you have the opportunity to hear people and actors deliver information by film and spoken word, making for powerful exhibits.
Civil Rights:The Year They Walked (And Then Sat)
The first exhibit here covers the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955-1956. The boycott was sustained by the women of the town, who are shown in beautiful 3D renditions outside the bus.
Women kept the Montgomery bus boycott going. Dr Martin Luther King Jr appears as a leader in this movement, delivering a speech on the first night of the boycott
Student sit-ins began in 1960, with a focus on peaceful protest. Behind the counter, you can see a film emphasizing the need for non-violent direct action.
The focus on non-violent direct action, as outlined in the film running behind the lunch counter. I loved the attention to the detail of the setting, including the lunch counter menu.
Civil Rights: The Freedom Rides 1961
In 1960, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in bus and train terminals. In response, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) started the Freedom Rides in 1961. The SNCC took over the rides, sending hundreds of young people into the south. The first two public buses carrying a mixed group of black and white travelers left Washington DC on 14 May 1961, bound for the Deep South.
As the buses headed south, they were met with mild hostility at first. Then their occupants sustained severe beatings in the second week. Outside Amiston, Alabama, one of the buses was burned. The riders were severely beaten in Birmingham, only two blocks from the sheriff’s office. The US Justice Department intervened at this stage, transporting the riders from Birmingham to New Orleans. CORE leaders determined that letting violence end the trip would send out the wrong signal. Volunteers were found to increase the number of riders again. I cannot imagine the bravery it would take to become a volunteer at this point, knowing what had happened before to other Freedom Riders.
Damage to a Greyhound bus, representing the extent of violence experienced by the Freedom Riders
The group headed onto Montgomery, where the buses were attacked by a group of over 1000 whites. The exhibit of a burnt bus in the Museum, its metal jagged and torn, is a strong indictment of those barbaric acts. The indifference of the local police and inaction of the Kennedy administration at this time are also chilling.
The riders continued to Mississippi, where they were imprisoned. This generated publicity and inspired more Freedom Rides, leading to a prohibition on segregation on public transportation.
Civil Rights: Join the movement
At various points throughout the Museum, there are interactive exhibits, including a smart table. Here you are asked to reflect on six of the key issues remaining relevant as part of the Civil Rights Movement: nonviolence, women’s rights, war, riots, poverty and integration.
Speak out: Join the movement
Civil Rights: I am a Man
In February 1968, the Memphis sanitation strike began: the culmination of many years of poor pay and dangerous working conditions. After workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death in garbage compactors, the strike commenced.
I am a man: Memphis sanitation strike 1968
There was a history of mistrust in the city, with sanitation workers enjoying few of the protections of other workers. They endured low pay and dangerous conditions and faced being fired without warning. As the strike solidified, a daily noon march took place across the city. The marchers were met with brutal resistance including mace, tear gas and billy clubs.
“For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.” Reverend James Lawson
From this came the iconic placards of the strike, reading “I am a man”. Dr Martin Luther King took an active role in the mass meetings and street action. You can hear his “Mountaintop” speech at the Museum, the last speech Dr King gave before he died.
King’s assassination intensified the strike. It ended on April 16, less than two weeks after his death, with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases.
Civil Rights: Dr King’s Assassination
Whoever designed the layout of the National Civil Rights Museum deserves praise for the impact of your walk through the buildings. From the confined, dark, imposing space at the start of your visit, through to the march you take with protesters, each step of your journey leads you onward through the Civil Rights movement. By the time you emerge from the sanitation strike exhibits, you have, if you are me, sort of forgotten that you are at the Lorraine Motel. In fact the route you follow through the exhibits seems to take you there by accident rather than design. Then when you emerge from the noise and fear and hate of the exhibits, you find yourself in the gentle, peaceful surroundings of the motel.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. 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!” Dr Martin Luther King Jr
What got me was the charm. I really didn’t expect charm at the motel. When you walk through to see the room where Dr King spent his last night, you see just how comfortable and well-appointed it is. There’s soft cosy bedding. Coffee cups on the table. A striped easy chair.
Civil Rights: Dr King’s Assassination
You get to hear the story of the day. King, with his aides, stayed in rooms 306 and 307. They were waiting to hear if the court would lift a ban on the sanitation workers’ march. King joked around with his brother and had a mock pillow fight with the returning Reverend Young for not keeping him informed of progress that day. They got ready to go out for dinner at Reverend Billy Kyles’ home.
Said to be the last words of Dr King, to the musician due to play his favourite hymn at a meeting that final evening. This stuck in my brain after our visit. We remember “I have a dream.” We tend to forget his life as someone’s son, brother, friend, husband, father.
Civil Rights: the Legacy Building
This part of the Museum complex is housed in the boarding house from which the assassin’s shot was fired. When you enter the building, you are immediately directed up to the higher floors. They are devoted to the police investigation and all the conspiracy theories concerning the shooter: James Earl Ray.
What you don’t notice at first, but then creeps into your consciousness, is that you are looking through the window used by the assassin to fire the fatal shot.
The shooter’s position: the bathroom where James Earl Ray fired from the boarding house across the street at Dr Martin Luther King on his balcony.
As I stood to take the photo above, I had to wonder at James Earl Ray’s thoughts. Did he really have a heart full of hate? Was he thinking that his action would change the future in the way it did?
Civil Rights: A Year On
It’s been a year since we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. The memories are still intense. Sounds of distant music, and exotic animals and the sea in the ship transport room. The Greyhound bus, burned and torn, that carried the Freedom Riders. I am a man. And a man recognising his personal vulnerability, but convinced of his bigger duty and responsibility to take action.