Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum: Celebrating a better tomorrow



There are two stories about the minutes following the death of Dr Martin Luther King.

The first involves the aides who desperately tried to revive the civil rights hero, shot from more than 60 metres away by James Earl Ray. The second involves another assistant, Dr Billy Kyles, who discreetly removed a crushed cigarette from King’s hand, and the packet of Lucky Strikes from his pocket.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was, it turns out, a secret smoker who tried to hide his life-long habit from his family.

The National Civil Rights Museum wraps around the shell of the original Lorraine Motel.

It was during one of those clandestine fag breaks on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel – at precisely 6.01pm on April 4, 1968 – that King was fatally shot.

Ironically, a packet of cigarettes lies next to the bed with the faded orange quilt in Room 306, where the Baptist Minister spent his last night.

Today, Room 306 appears exactly as it did on that fateful day. It’s now part of Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum, which was built around the shell of the Lorraine Motel.

Posters hang on the walls of the National Civil Rights Museum, a reminder of the ugly slavery trade that operated in Memphis for many years.

It doesn’t look like much: a cheap, modest room decked out in 1960s decor, a vintage television, floral tea cups, a hairbrush spilling out of a suitcase in the throes of being unpacked. It seems an unlikely setting for a shot that was heard around the world.

But King was staying at the Lorraine because he wasn’t welcome at any of the “better” Memphis hotels. “Segregation was in full swing back then and African-Americans were not permitted to stay in white-only hotels,” says my guide, in his gentle Tennessee drawl.

King had been in Memphis to support hundreds of sanitation workers in their strike for higher wages and better benefits. The day before, he’d given his prophetic I’ve Been to the Mountain Top speech (his I Have a Dream speech plays on a loop elsewhere in the museum).

Two Cadillacs are permanently parked beneath the balcony of Room 306, where Martin Luther King was shot on April 4, 1968.

From the outside, the motel appears much as it would have to King: a flat roof, green doors and dirty blonde bricks. A faded wreath hangs from the railing and two Cadillacs are parked below. They weren’t the actual vehicles driven by King or his entourage but they frame the historical context nicely.

Visitors view Room 306 from behind floor-to-ceiling glass, to the accompaniment of the sorrowful strains of Mahalia Jackson’s Take My Hand, Precious Lord. It’s poignant and oh so sad: the gulf between the very ordinariness of the cheap motel room and what happened there brings many (including me) to tears.

“When the late Nelson Mandela came to visit, he wept openly and said ‘I’m not supposed to be emotional but this is where Martin died’,” my guide tells me.

The exterior of Lorraine Motel appears much the same as did when Martin Luther King stayed – and died – there.

There’s a third story about April 4, 1968, he adds conspiratorially, leaning on a memory as though sharing a long-held secret. “Dr King wasn’t the only person to die at the Lorraine Motel that day. The switchboard operator who stepped out of her office to get a glimpse of the civil rights leader ended up seeing the assassination. She immediately had a heart attack from the shock, and died soon after.”

As the motel owner’s wife, she was the only person there who knew how to operate the phones. That left King’s friends and associates scrambling to find another means of getting help.

On an unseasonably warm autumn day, the kind that Tennessee does so well, we drive 10 minutes from our downtown hotel to Mulberry Lane where the National Civil Rights Museum was opened in 1991.

Posters hang on the walls of the National Civil Rights Museum, a reminder of the ugly slavery trade that operated in Memphis for many years.

Two years ago, it received a US$27.5 million facelift to make it more interactive, including touch screens that display mini documentaries, oral histories and speeches. More than 40 new displays paint a comprehensive picture of five centuries of African-American history from the early days of slavery to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ugly Jim Crow era of segregation. There’s an afro-heavy exhibit tracing the development of the Black Panther Movement and the election of Barack Obama as the first African-African president.

One of the most horrific exhibits features a three-dimensional ship’s hold, which allows visitors to crouch in the confined hull. There you can try to imagine what it was like to be part of the Atlantic slave trade in the late 1700s when people were packed into ships alongside corn and sugarcane and brought to Memphis, then the centre of the global cotton exchange, against their will.

The Standing Up by Sitting Down exhibit features more life-sized sculptures, but this time of students seated at the original lunch counter from FW Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of the first sit-in on February 1, 1960. Hecklers yell at the students for sitting in the “whites-only” area, while projected onto a wall behind them is actual black and white footage of students being brutally beaten for their passive resistance.

The exterior of Lorraine Motel appears much the same as did when Martin Luther King stayed – and died – there.

I hop aboard a replica of the bus that Rosa Parks rode in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 when she refused to give up her seat to a white person. As I sit down, recorded shouts of “You can’t sit there!” and “Go to the back of the bus!” ring out, making me jump.

There’s also the twisted, burnt-out shell of the  1960s Greyhound Bus the Freedom Riders travelled on. Entitled We Are Prepared to Die, the exhibit illustrates how hundreds of young black and white men and women were willing to die for the right of others to ride public transportation regardless of their race.

It’s a relief to head outside for air but there’s one more thing to see. Across the road, the boarding house where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot has morphed into an exhibit, which outlines the how, why, and where of King’s assassination and Ray’s eventual arrest.

On Beale St, the long straight road that bisects downtown Memphis, there’s further reminders of the ugliness that once swirled around these parts. Famous as the cradle of blues music (and, by association, rock and roll and soul) Beale St was often referred to as the Main St of Negro America, thanks to the many African Americans who were drawn there for work in the 1920s and 1930s.

It was, says my guide, where rural bluesmen from the Delta rubbed shoulders and traded riffs with their jazzier more sophisticated counterparts from other parts of the country.

Despite the heavy musical history balanced on its shoulders, Beale St doesn’t impress: a bunch of seedy bars and cheap eateries, where thumping soul and R&B spills out of doors and windows, rattling the footpath. Police pose for photos alongside a drunken hen’s party and preppy college boys try, and fail, to look cool.

We drink beer at a bar so dark I can’t even see the fish in my tacos. But you can forgive anything when the music is this good. The band, a rag-tag collective of young men who sing about love and loss in strained, smoky voices, are so slick that in New Zealand they’d be headlining a jazz festival.

Later, we nip next door to the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery. Built on the site of photographer Ernest C Withers’ last photographic studio, the gallery features some of the five million photos Withers took during his  60-year career. Alongside shots of a young Elvis, BB King, and Tina Turner, his iconic black and white images of key civil rights events decorate the gallery’s brick walls, a stark reminder of the violence that seeped into this city’s history books.

There are graphic shots of black farm hands hanging from trees and such horrific scenes of beaten and broken civil rights workers, I have to look away. But there’s also beauty: in the candid shots of Dr King lying on his bed, reading the newspaper and laughing with friends, of weddings and celebrations, and people getting on with their lives while all around them the battle for racial equality raged.

Withers, who began his career as a military photographer during WWII, was often the only photographer to record events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, because they were of little interest to the mainstream press.

Instead, because he developed close relationships with people such as Dr King, he and his Hasselblad camera had a ringside seat to the injustices.

In many ways, Memphis is a city of ghosts. Of famous, and not so famous, people who took their last breath here, many dying for what they believed in. Yes, some of its history is murky and echoes of an older, less tolerant era. But, as my guide says, this city of 65,000 is also about celebrating a better tomorrow.

“We must never forget the past and how hard and bitterly unjust it was. So many people, Dr King included, died before their time. But we can’t change the future unless we understand the past and Memphis is all about acknowledging where we’ve been so we can get to a better place.”


More information:

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Houston from Auckland with connections available from across its domestic network. One way economy fares start from $989 per person (including taxes). Visit more details and to book.

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