Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Former Lorraine Motel in Memphis
Back in February 2017, My Person and I spent the morning and early afternoon at the National Civil Rights Museum at the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
The former Lorraine Motel is directly ahead in the photograph. On the left is the Legacy Building housed in the Young and Morrow Building and the Main Street Rooming House where James Earl Ray stayed.
As we explored the outside of the motel, we saw at least three different groups of middle school and high school students entering the museum.
Target was sponsoring free field trips, including free busing, to the museum for Title I schools within the Memphis and Shelby County School Systems.
Protestor Jacqueline Smith is still camped outside the museum on the public sidewalk with signs stating that Martin Luther King Jr. would not want people wasting money on t-shirts and souvenirs.
While the controversy over whether or not the Lorraine Motel should have been converted from SRO temporary housing to a museum persists, the number of students I saw in one morning streaming through the exhibits convinced me that the museum serves an important educational role.
Prior to entering the permanent exhibit, we did walk through Special Exhibit, ENSLAVED, A Visual Story of Modern Day Slavery featuring the powerful photographs of Lisa Kristine.
Her photograph of two brothers carrying stone in Nepal brought tears to my eyes. While discussing slavery in the ancient world, my 6th grade students asked about whether or not slavery exists now. I showed them this same photograph and tears welled in many of their eyes.
Her online gallery of Modern Day Slavery features the same photographs that were on display in Memphis.
Her January 2012 TEDTalk "Photos that bear witness to modern day slavery" gives the back story and insight on how she captured these images.
1. A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America, 1619-1861
The first permanent gallery is a circular room that effectively sets a compelling tone to all subsequent exhibits.
On the floor is a world map that illuminates the various slave trade routes.
Encircling the room at the top of the wall are the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. The words written in stone on high create a chilling visual effect in this somber room.
I am a middle-aged white woman standing on the world surrounded by words that protect me, but everywhere I look in the room I see face after face in various media (pictures, statues, artist renderings) of people exploited for the creation of wealth and power.
While museum staff will allow visitors to spend as much time in the opening gallery as they like, the next exhibit is a film. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, Created Equal: The Fight for Equality in America Begins covers the Civil War and Reconstruction in about twelve minutes.
3. I, Too, Am America: Combating Jim Crow, 1896-1954
As we leave the theater, we're directed to a fairly narrow hallway. At the end of the hallway, the display below is the next thing we see.
The displays here enumerate the various injustices of Plessy v. Ferguson.
If you look on the left up higher, you can’t make out the words here, but they’re projecting various quotes from people of power in defense of segregation.
On the right are banks of listening devices/wands for oral histories. You can choose various people with different stories about what it was like to live under Jim Crow.
I listened to one man describe how difficult it was to travel from the South to the North because he had to know where he was allowed to buy gas or use a restroom or eat a meal.
4. Separate Is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
The large photo below is Dr. Kenneth Clark conducting the “Doll Test”. This test and its results were a key component to the NAACP’s case against the Topeka Board of Education.
On the other side of this room are three old-fashioned wooden desks.
On the desks are various primary source documents depicting what life was like for an African-American child trying to go to school in the recently de-segregated South.
My Person took a picture of this horrifically racist poem, but the other document I remember vividly was the anonymous letter written to one of the Little Rock Nine Young Men in his Senior year of high school. He was getting ready to graduate and this cowardly Southern gentlemen-type sent him a letter asking him NOT to attend graduation and ruin it for everyone.
5. The Year They Walked: Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956
As I walked into this room, I heard a raised stern male voice. The bus driver.
He’s telling Rosa Parks repeatedly to get to the back of the bus. My Person had stepped onto the bus to take photos and his movement triggered the audio. This audio is loud enough that if I wasn’t expecting it by the time I caught up to My Person, I would have jumped.
This display is one of the original exhibits from the 1991 opening of the National Civil Rights Museum.
6. Standing Up By Sitting Down: Student Sit-Ins, 1960
Jail! No bail! became a rallying cry because protestors didn’t want to contribute money to the system that was oppressing them.
This display highlights some startling facts. Across the top of one wall are the various charges, along with the fines and the 2014 dollar equivalent for the same charges.
For instance, trespassing and breach of the peace was a $100 fine (equaled nearly $800 in 2014). Conspiracy, intimidating owners, influencing minors, and disturbing the peace by riotous conduct was a $300 fine (equaled more than $2,300 in 2014).
That’s video playing on the wall.
Archival film is used consistently in this museum, but in a variety of ways.
While the museum does have several areas where you can sit and view a short film, they also integrate this archival footage in subtle ways that help effectively create visual tension.
8. We Are Prepared To Die: Freedom Rides, 1961
This photograph was actually taken from exhibit 20 for the Memphis Sanitation Strike looking down on the burned bus from exhibit 8.
9. We Who Believe In Freedom: Organizing in Mississippi, 1945-1963
There’s another short film that highlights the struggle of James Meredith, the first African-American who applied to Ole Miss. He did become the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi in September 1962.
Next to the film is this display showcasing the various equipment the 500 U.S. Marshals used to protect Meredith as he tried to register for school.
11. The Children Shall Lead Them: Birmingham, 1963
The plaque for this photo states: "Young protestors in Birmingham, moments before their signs were confiscated by the police. 1963."
This section of the exhibit was particularly powerful for me. It’s a re-created jail cell. Bare bones. On the side wall, you see the picture of MLK…
You’re listening to MLK reading a section of his Letters from a Birmingham Jail as the words display on the wall.
The minimalistic approach to this section of the display gives power to MLK’s words.
Society jailed his physical form, but his mind was free. Letters from a Birmingham Jail became a pivotal text for the American Civil Rights Movement.
12. For Jobs and Freedom: The March on Washington, 1963
14. How Long? Not Long: Selma Voting Rights Campaign, 1965
The flooring changes here to pavement…so you too are marching…
And then you keep marching with the protestors.
17. Say It Loud: Black Pride, 1966-1976
20. I Am a Man: Memphis Sanitation Strike, 1968
Here’s another example of a great way to integrate video. On the side of the sanitation truck, the museum is projecting various local newspaper headlines about the strike.
22. King's Last Hours: Rooms 306 and 307
No adult spoke here. Maybe a whisper or two.
There was a little girl (maybe 3 or 4) with her parents and she was asking questions. Her parents were politely getting her to be quiet while quietly addressing her questions.
Dr. King's room
Standing here was eerie, grim, sobering. And then I looked out on the balcony and I noticed that there’s a square piece of the balcony that looks out of place. It’s a perfect square indicating that a piece of the balcony had been replaced…
From the National Civil Rights Museum Website FAQs:
"Is it true that a square of concrete on the balcony was once stained by the blood of Dr. King?
Yes. Soon after the tragic shooting of Dr. King, many community members set about to preserve and, in some cases, remove distasteful evidence of the crime. One such effort involved the removal of a concrete square on the balcony with the blood stains from Dr. King. Later, that square was replaced."
As My Person and I walked across the street, we were discussing how within the Civil Right Museum, there was NO mention of James Earl Ray.
Not a single mention.
And now we were walking toward the building where Ray fired the fatal shot. This building gives the timeline of the investigation, the case against Ray, and the various conspiracy theories.
The Legacy Building: The Young & Morrow Building and the Main Street Rooming House
This window is not the one from which Ray shot. That window is about four or five feet over to the left of this shot. The actual window is behind display glass because it still contains the original bathroom fixtures, which are old and grimy.
Standing here was creepy enough. Sobering. Macabre.
This display case is two-sided. It contains various pieces of evidence in capturing Ray. The bullet removed from Dr. King is here.
That’s the rifle.
The FBI took the windowsill from the rooming house. They’ve even got Ray's boxer shorts.
The entire museum experience was information-rich! People could visit the National Civil Rights Museum multiple times and learn something new with every tour.
Adult Admission cost $15 per person. A bargain for such a world-class museum.