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At the scene of a tragedy, National Civil Rights Museum preserves history

By Kevin Nance,

Memphis — On the outside, the Lorraine Motel looks much as it did that late afternoon of April 4, 1968. The sun still beats down on the second-floor balcony just outside Room 306, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. teased young Jesse Jackson about not wearing a tie to dinner at a minister’s house that night, and where King asked a band leader to play his favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” The major difference is the funeral wreath of red and white carnations that now hangs on the railing to mark the spot where he fell when the shot rang out.

Across Mulberry Street, 283 feet away, is the boarding-house window from which James Earl Ray, a convicted bank robber who escaped from prison, is believed to have fired the fatal round. Walk around the corner to Main Street and you can stand on the pavement where the fleeing Ray, perhaps spooked by two police cars parked nearby, dropped a bundle of items — including a high-powered hunting rifle with a scope, a transistor radio with his prison inmate number scratched on it and a six-pack of Schlitz, all bearing his fingerprints — before driving off in a flashy white Mustang.

Inside, both buildings are transformed. They house the National Civil Rights Museum, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. The exhibits are comprehensive, covering the history of slavery and the civil rights movement in North America from 1619 to the present, from Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and John Brown to Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer and Malcolm X.

You sit on a bus and are ordered to give up your seat or be arrested, as Rosa Parks was in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, and you can view a replica of the Greyhound bus that a crowd in Anniston, Ala., firebombed in 1961, holding its doors shut in an attempt to incinerate the Freedom Riders inside. You can visit a jail cell like the one in Birmingham in which dozens of teenagers were crammed after being arrested for participating in civil rights marches during which they were attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses whose water was forceful enough to strip the bark off trees.

But nothing prepares you for your final destination — Room 306, which King shared with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference colleague Ralph Abernathy on the night before the assassination, when he gave his eerily prescient “Mountaintop” speech. (“I may not get there with you,” he told a crowd of about 4,000, “but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”)

Now, with Mahalia Jackson on the loudspeaker singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the room appears as they left it: the rumpled coverlet on King’s double bed folded back; half-filled coffee cups and ashtrays; a can of pomade on the vanity; a Gideon Bible on the nightstand; a newspaper with the headline “Racial Peace Sought by Two Negro Pastors”; and just outside the window, the balcony where King collapsed, a square of its original concrete flooring preserved, poignant as a gravestone.

“This is what hits people the hardest,” says Kenon Walker, 31, a former actor who performed as part of a temporary exhibit at the museum three years ago, fell in love with its mission and went on to become its chief tour guide. “This is where people break down.”

It’s also what sets the National Civil Rights Museum apart from similar institutions around the country, says Beverly Robertson, the museum’s president. “There are a number of museums that commemorate aspects or episodes of the civil rights movement, but they are not on the actual sites of those events,” Robertson says. “We are unique in that this is the place where history actually happened. It didn’t occur across town or in another state. It occurred right here.”

A museum is born

In its heyday, the motel was a destination for African Americans visiting Memphis.

Musicians who traveled to the city to lay down tracks for Stax Records often stayed at the Lorraine, where rooms could be rented in the late 1960s for just under $13 per night. Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, and others wrote songs in the motel. King and Abernathy had stayed there several times, sharing Room 306 so often that they jokingly called it “the King-Abernathy suite.”

By 1983, the neighborhood around the Lorraine was run-down, and the motel went into foreclosure. Memphis defense attorney and civil rights activist D’Army Bailey led a group that bought the motel and began raising $8.3 million to launch the museum, which broke ground in 1987 and opened in 1991.

Not everyone was pleased. On the sidewalk across from the museum almost daily for the past 23 years, the Lorraine’s last tenant, Jacqueline Smith, has waged a one-woman campaign protesting the institution’s existence. Smith argues that King’s legacy would have been better honored by converting the motel into low-income housing or some other facility for the poor.

“It’s a tourist trap, first and foremost,” Smith says now of the museum that she has refused to set foot in, despite invitations from the museum staff. “To show support for Dr. King, people should not go in there.”

Smith’s call for a boycott has gone largely unheeded. Despite getting minimal funding from government sources, the museum now has an annual budget of a $4.4 million (more than 40 percent from earned income), a staff of 33 people and yearly attendance that has risen steadily over the past decade to its current level of just above 200,000.

“The museum is doing far better than might have been expected in this soft economy,” says Robertson, who notes that as the recession of 2008 was wreaking havoc on museum attendance around the country, her institution received national media attention related to its commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the King assassination. A second bump came later that year as a result of the election of President Obama.

“You’d be amazed at how packed this place was on the day of the inauguration,” she recalls with satisfaction. “We had televisions set up everywhere so that people could watch it here. In many ways it was the fulfillment of King’s dream, and people told us they wanted to see it here.”

Expanding the experience

The museum expanded in 2002 when it annexed the boarding house across the street. Accessed by a tunnel with a metal gate featuring a passage from the Mountaintop speech, the building now houses a collection of exhibits relating to the assassination— including the room rented by Ray, the bathroom from which the shot is thought to have been fired, the rifle itself and the other contents of the dropped bundle — and highlighting the often conflicting theories about the event.

(Ray pleaded guilty to murder and received a 99-year sentence but later denied having pulled the trigger, a claim he maintained until he died in prison in 1998. Some observers, including members of the King family, continue to believe that Ray did not act alone, although a federal review of the case in 2000 concluded otherwise.)

“I call it the ‘CSI Building,’ and quite honestly, you get mixed reactions to it,” Walker says of the annex. “A lot of older people who visit don’t want to go into that building because they’re hesitant to get caught up in James Earl Ray and the details of the investigation. On the other hand, a lot of the younger people will go straight there and spend all day in that building, fascinated.”

Now the museum is preparing for its second big upgrade — a $26 million renovation, scheduled for completion in 2014, that will add new exhibit space with increased digital and interactive displays, a redesigned lobby and other improvements. A drive to pay for the renovation has raised about $18 million, some of it through a “20-for-20 campaign” in which supporters are asked to contribute $1 for each year of the museum’s existence. (For more details, visit the museum’s Web site,

The museum also plans an expanded edition of its annual Freedom Award honoring human rights activists on Nov. 12; past recipients have included the Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela.

“We are not changing the footprint of the institution, but we are changing the way we communicate this history,” Robertson says. “And the history continues. If you look at what’s happening in Egypt, in Bahrain and Syria, they’re looking to the peaceful civil rights movement as their model — they were singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ you know? We’re more relevant today than ever.”

Nance is a feelance writer


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