Jan. 05, 2008
By MICHAEL SCHUMAN
Special to The Star
MEMPHIS, Tenn. | If you remember 1968, you probably know the names
and phrases that became household words that spring: the Lorraine
Motel, the flophouse across the street, Bessie Brewer and James Earl Ray.
To those who followed accounts of the assassination of the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr., it can be downright eerie to walk through
Bessie Brewer's former boardinghouse, identified as "the flophouse"
where James Earl Ray stayed and from where he fired the fatal bullet.
The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 in the shell of the
Lorraine Motel, where King was staying at the time of his death. An
$11 million museum expansion in 2002 added the boardinghouse at 420
S. Main St. and an adjacent building. The new exhibit, "Exploring the
Legacy," preserves the shabby room where Ray stayed, as well as the
communal bathroom from which he pulled the trigger.
It would be easy to let the assassination overshadow the inspiring
message the rest of the National Civil Rights Museum offers. But from
the first gallery, "Unremitting Struggle," the museum offers proof
that the civil rights movement began long before King, and even
before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala.,
bus in 1955.
Nat Turner organized a slave revolt in 1831; Boston schoolgirl Sarah
C. Roberts challenged the constitutionality of separate schools when
she sued the city in 1849; the NAACP was founded in 1910; and in the
1920s Marcus Garvey began a movement to take Americans of African
ancestry back to Africa.
Galleries illustrate many of the iconic moments in the modern
movement. A full-size city bus from the movie "A Long Walk Home"
symbolizes the Montgomery bus boycott. Aboard it are two plaster
statues, one representing bus driver James Blake, the other Rosa
Parks, donning an overcoat and hat she probably would have worn on
the chilly December day when she refused to move to the back.
A transplanted department store lunch counter, topped with plastic
red and yellow condiment bottles, is the focal point of a gallery on
1960s sit-ins, protests planned to expedite integration in private
businesses. Seated at the counter are four plaster figures
representing student protesters. Archival footage plays nearby on
A massive façade of stately Central High School dominates an exhibit
about the Little Rock, Ark., school integration crisis of 1957. Civil
rights leaders had criticized President Dwight Eisenhower for not
endorsing the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs.
(Topeka) Board of Education, which banned legal segregation in schools.
But in 1957 Eisenhower sent the Army's 101st Airborne Division to
enforce integration in Little Rock. In a speech shown on a monitor,
Eisenhower refers to white pro-segregation mobs as "demagogue
extremists." Historic photos show Little Rock residents holding signs
of support for Arkansas' segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus.
Controversy marked the civil rights movement from the beginning.
Segregationists claimed the movement was rife with Communists. An
exhibit concedes that some civil rights leaders in the 1920s and '30s
were members of the Communist party several joined after the trial
of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenage males who were
falsely convicted in the 1930s of raping two white women in Alabama.
Other history-changing moments merit galleries, too. One that
examines the early 1960s freedom riders activists who boarded buses
and trains to test a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial
segregation in interstate public facilities is symbolized by a
burned Greyhound bus; a similar bus was set on fire in Anniston, Ala., in 1961.
An orange garbage truck stands in a gallery devoted to a sanitation
workers strike that brought King to Memphis in the early spring of
1968; surrounding it is simulated garbage and plaster figures of
striking workers carrying signs reading, "I AM A MAN."
The last exhibit in the former Lorraine Motel is King's room as it
looked the evening of April 4, 1968. A peach-colored spread covers
his partly unmade bed. An upholstered standard-issue motel chair
stands nearby. A milk pitcher, creamer and water glass offer evidence
of the evening's refreshment. The view from a window looks toward the
old boardinghouse, now the home of the museum extension.
Even though King is revered today as a national hero, the museum
makes clear that this was not the case during much of his life, even
near the end.
In "Exploring the Legacy," an exhibit in the refurbished
boardinghouse, a videotape shows West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd
blasting King as a troublemaking coward just a few days before King's death.
Assassination exhibits there include a white Ford Mustang, similar to
the one Ray drove to escape the scene, as well as Ray's binoculars
and Remington rifle with his fingerprints. A timeline details Ray's
steps in the months before and weeks after the assassination.
Rather than let the experience end on such a dark note, the museum is
designed so visitors pass a tribute to other civil rights era
martyrs, from Michigan housewife Viola Liuzzo to New Hampshire
seminarian Jonathan Daniels.
"When visitors come we'd like them to focus not so much on Dr. King
being killed here but on his legacy and the impact from ordinary
individuals who made extraordinary change," a museum spokeswoman
said. "Without them, Dr. King wouldn't have been as successful."
The National Civil Rights Museum is at 450 Mulberry St. in Memphis,
Tenn. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Saturday, 1-5
Sunday. The museum stays open until 6 from June through August.
Closed Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New
Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for adults 55 and older and students
with ID; $8.50 for children ages 4-17. Free after 3 p.m. Mondays.
Allow at least three hours; more if you like to pore over exhibits in detail.
To learn more
•National Civil Rights Museum: 901-521-9699, civilrightsmuseum.org.
•Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau: 901-543-5300, memphistravel.com.
King Day in Memphis
Several events are planned in Memphis for Martin Luther King Day weekend.
•On Jan. 18, Michael Honey, a University of Washington professor and
author of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther
King's Last Campaign, will speak at 2 p.m. at the University of
Memphis. Admission is free. cas.memphis.edu/isc/ moch/events.htm
•A King Day Youth Celebration is slated for the National Civil Rights
Museum from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 19. The program will include
interactive games, storytelling and a birthday party at 1.
•The King Day Celebration on Jan. 21 will take place from 8 a.m. to 6
p.m. at the museum, highlighted by a musical performance titled "Wake
Up, Everybody!" The show will simulate the social, political and
artistic spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s through drama, music and
•Also on Jan. 21, a symposium will honor NBA stars Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Lanier for their contributions to civil and
human rights. The symposium will precede the Memphis Grizzlies game
at 3 p.m. at FedEx Forum. Admission is free with the purchase of a
Grizzlies ticket but space is limited. nba.com/ grizzlies/news/mlk
Michael Schuman is a freelance writer in Keene, N.H. | Michael
Schuman, Special to The Star