Saturday, May 24, 2014

Civil Rights

We think it has been 18 years since we were in Memphis and visited the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968. We returned today to what is now called the National Civil Rights Museum.

The sign out front is still the same.

The wreath has changed, but the door to room 306 looks the same. Dr. King was standing in front of that room when he was shot.

James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot from the window of the boarding house across the street, the window with the blue curtain.

The motel and the boarding house have not changed. But in 2013 and 2014 the museum had a $27.5 million expansion that explores the history of slavery and the American civil rights struggle from the days of slavery to the present. In front of the Lorraine Motel, there are sound stations with short videos from the day King was killed.

Across the street, there is another museum in the boarding house building. This quote from a speech Dr. King gave in Memphis the day before he was shot. He had come to town to support the sanitation workers' strike.

Beyond the assassination, the museum has an exhibit on A Culture of Resistance, tracing the history of slavery in America from 1619 to 1861. Here are some statistics on that period.

There was information about the conditions on ships that brought Africans to this country to be sold into slavery.

This is a statue showing a slave auction.

Much of the museum deals with ideas and statistics, like this about people as property.

There was a great deal of information about the major industries that used slave labor, cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice. The number of slaves grew to an astonishing number by the beginning of the Civil War.

There was quite a focus on the contrast between the beliefs expressed in the Declaration of Independence--all men are created equal--and the reality at that time and in the decades following.

That helped me to understand the meaning behind the signs carried during the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, proclaiming "I Am a Man."

Videos taken during the strike are shown on the side of an old garbage truck.

Other exhibits covered Standing Up by Sitting Down, The Year They Walked and We Are Prepared to Die. I remember the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth's that led to the end of segregated lunch counters. I remember the Birmingham Bus Boycott, set off when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus for a white woman. Walking into a bus (the bus?) and sitting behind Rosa Parks or listening to the driver demanding she give up her seat is very moving.

I don't remember the events shown in We Are Prepared to Die. At one point, a Greyhound bus carrying blacks and whites across country, was attacked and burned.

Museum that portray events I have lived through are very interesting. We learned a lot today, though I wouldn't say we had a good time. They museum has so much information, we couldn't take it all in. We never even went into the section across the street. To really study all that is presented, we would have to return for at least one more visit, maybe two.

We are getting older. It is our generation and the baby boomers that fueled the civil rights movement. This museum is important so younger people can learn and remember what helped create the society we live in today. The struggles of the past, whether it is the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II or civil rights, must be remembered.

I remember James Meredith being admitted to the University of Mississippi and the desegregation of Little Rock High School. These events were shown on TV as I was growing up. But I don't remember many of the details of these struggles. The museum had pictures and videos from so many things that were part of the struggle to end Jim Crow laws in this country during the 1950s and 1960s. It took hard work to change our society.

After leaving the museum, we were hungry, so we walked a couple of blocks to the Arcade Restaurant, Memphis's oldest cafe.

We enjoyed our taco salad.


  1. It looks like they did a good job with the museum. It's shocking to look back and seems unbelievable that slavery could have ever happened. Did Jefferson think at all about the slaves as he penned those famous words?

  2. This was very informative. We are from Penticton , BC but I grew up in California. We are planning a trip in October and after reading hour post we definitely want to go to Memphis. Thank you for your post