Memphis's Road to Civil Rights
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page P12
Iam a man. I am a man. I am a man. Those words are on signs, hundreds of them, held high by a crowd of black men -- an ocean of resolve flowing deep into the photo. This single picture, hanging at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, captures the calm, powerful truth at the heart of the movement.
The building that houses it, though, was a scene of violence. It's a former boarding house, annexed during the museum's 2002 expansion. I hop an elevator to the top floor, stepping out to find a seedy hotel room with a broken-down bed and sad, saggy furniture. A glance away is the grubby bathroom where James Earl Ray allegedly lurked to fire the shot that killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The rooms are re-creations, sleaze perfectly captured and encased in plexiglass walls. But what chills my spine is looking out the window and across the street to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where King stood when he was gunned down. Suddenly, I am looking through Ray's eyes.
The Lorraine Motel -- the museum's main building -- sits like a retro-chic time capsule from the 1960s, with turquoise doors and a jazzy, boomerang sign. I've been inside, though. Seen Room 306, where King stayed, with its half-drunk cups of coffee, crumpled napkins, stubbed-out cigarettes. And I've witnessed the spot where he fell in 1968, where a hunk of bloody concrete was later jimmied out of the balcony. The bittersweet soundtrack for these sights, "Precious Lord" performed by Mahalia Jackson, hangs thick in the air.
The museum designers were clever. Behind the Lorraine's preserved facade, the entire history of the civil rights movement crescendos to that balcony. The boarding house is a coda, and its exhibits that reveal Ray's background, trace his flight and explore tantalizing conspiracy theories swirling around the assassination are respectfully distanced from the movement's struggles.
And what struggles. The story starts in the slave era and unfurls through the Civil War, early civil rights acts and modern times -- including sit-ins, freedom rides, marches and landmark court decisions.
I learn about Brown v. Board of Education, the movement's first major legal victory, handed down 50 years ago this month (May 17, 1954). In it, the Supreme Court unanimously outlawed racial segregation in public schools, denying the concept of "separate but equal." A young Thurgood Marshall won the case, then went on to become a Supreme Court justice.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man. I climb aboard a real Montgomery, Ala., bus where a neat, matronly sculpture of Parks sits steadfast while my audio guide headset spins her story. Though the rest of the bus seats are empty in this exhibit, I don't sit down. It seems more appropriate to stand in her presence.
A dime store lunch counter is the scene of a student sit-in exhibit, with more of the life-size figures perched on stools. A couple of thugs taunt them from behind. Projected archival footage shows an actual sit-in that erupted into violence. It's startling that the figures in these exhibits -- no matter the race -- are light gray, an interesting decision to ignore color.
I flick off my audio guide and study one of many timelines that snake along the walls. I think about how fast some of us have become complacent, believing we have all the answers when it comes to freedom. I examine an exhibit of an actual burned and twisted Greyhound bus, representing the trip seven blacks and six whites took in 1961 to protest illegal segregation. They ended up beaten and arrested, the bus firebombed. Later, a string of photos captures the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., where 600 peaceful marchers were tear-gassed.
The museum also documents hard-won change. The Civil Rights Act, 40 years old this year, banned discrimination in public places, required equal employment and addressed voting inequities. But with issues like affirmative action still making news, the debate -- some would say the struggle -- continues.
-- Gayle Keck
The National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St., Memphis) is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday (until 6 p.m. June to August), closed Tuesdays. Admission, including audio guide, is $10. Details: 901-521- 9699, www.civilrightsmuseum.org
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis offers visitors a view of the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.