MEMPHIS, TENN (News4usonline) – Walking through all the myriad of exhibits on display at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is a walking timeline back into history. For Black Americans, that history has been nothing short of cruelty and abuse of the human spirit.
From the moment you step foot into the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel-the last standing spot for civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-all the way up until visitors have a chance to wind their way to the lodging house where James Earl Ray took up a room so he could carry out his murderous intentions of the famed leader, you’re kind of left in awe of everything.
King was 39 years old when he was gunned down by a single bullet from a high-powered rifle on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. That bit of history has expanded itself into a national museum.
The shooting of King as well as other turn of events that have been critical in the advancement of Black Americans looking for a level and fair playing ground just to exist is on display at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.
Even if you’re a history buff of some sorts, if you’re visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel you should be prepared for two hours of being exasperated, shocked and being well-informed of the complicated and hardship pathway of black Americans in the United States.
The fascinating part of the museum is that you can find just about every single era of American history as it relates to Black people throughout your tour. You name an era and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel will have something relating to that time period.
The tour starts with an ode to those who sacrificed their lives and were brought to America aboard slave ships, which is detailed eloquently. As you wrap up your gallery experience in the first part of the museum, a video homage to the struggles of the Black experience is played for visitors about every 12 minutes or so.
It turned out to be a teaser for what is to come for the many onlookers taking in all of the sobering photos, videos and narrative boards lined up throughout the different exhibits.
These exhibits cover slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow and all of its racist baggage, as well as casting an eye on the Civil Rights Movements and other game-changing events in the 20th Century for Black Americans.
The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is not just about the work that King and others did during the Civil Rights Movement, it is a historical montage to the blood, sweat and tears that have been shed by so many for the opportunities of freedom and the right to vote can be afforded to Black Americans today.
So much blood, so many tears. And so many emotions ran through my spine as I continued on my march through the museum, each stop pulling relentlessly at my heartstrings. Let’s begin with the cornerstone exhibits inside the museum.
First up is A Culture of Resistance exhibit, which captures the slavery timeline in America from 1619-1861. One word for this exhibit: Powerful.
This exhibit takes you back to the root of America’s race crisis, where Africans were brought to this country enslaved in chains and served no other purpose but to satisfy the whims of white foreigners looking to reap the rewards of free labor as well as engage in sexual renderings of their bought property.
This exhibit wets the emotional appetite of what is to come. What is to come next are the Standing Up By Sitting Down and The Year They Walked exhibits, each carrying a burdensome load of suffrage of Black Americans as they strived to be part of the American societal fabric.
But before you can even get to those exhibits, you must go through a well-orated showcase about the famous Brown v Board of Education legal fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 blew a hole in state laws across the country that had made it legal to carry on segregation in public schools.
Instead of putting on another platform for future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who became the first Black American to sit on the nation’s highest court, the exhibit instead focuses on the trailblazing work of attorney Charles Houston.
A sharp legal mind, Houston, in his work at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, laid the groundwork to dismantling public school segregation. That’s part of the driving narrative at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. It seems at every stop, a little bit of history unfolds with unsung heroes and sheroes who were major contributors to the advancement of equality.
And we haven’t gotten into the deep part of the museum highlights. There’s a lot to take in during your tour but you’ll be richer in Black American history than you were when you came through the door.
With that said, the Standing Up By Sitting Down (Student Sit-Ins 1960) and The Year They Walked (Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956) as well as the riveting We Are Prepared to Die exhibits go deep into the Civil Rights Movement, which King was leading.
These exhibits highlight the heart of a movement that fought for changes in housing, education, and voting rights.
All the major players during that time period are included in these exhibits, including in-depth looks at Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis, Rev. James Lawson and others.
As you move throughout these three exhibits to the What Do We Want? Black Power exhibit, you scoot by the re-imaging video of what happened on Bloody Sunday and encounter various steps of King’s movement throughout, including his involvement in the sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis.
The highlight of the tour is the re-incarnated reading of King’s famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail and the re-do likeness of Rosa Parks sitting in her place where she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.
However, by and large, the culminating point of the museum’s self-guided tour is going up and seeing the room that King occupied before he was assassinated. By this time, I was getting goosebumps and feeling a little anxious.
The thought of standing within proximity where King would spend his last hours was more than an emotional hiccup. It was almost traumatizing. The two-hour build up had led me to this. I felt angry. I was sad and yet reflective.
More importantly, I felt even more appreciative for the people who sacrificed so much so that myself as well as my children could do and have better. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is a place every American should visit.
My thought process is that I believe that once we see where we have been we can then move forward as a nation. Racism, oppression, discrimination, slavery, and Jim Crow will then have to move to the back of the bus.
Featured Image Caption: Photo by Dennis J Freeman