By Barbara Zaragoza
In July 2014 I visited the South (Arkansas and Tennessee to be exact). The people were friendly, the food excellent and the weather humid. All this, in cliché terms, was to be expected. I also found a community that cares deeply about their history — a history, in particular, that provides detailed and moving documentation of the road to equality for African-Americans in the United States.
In commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I would like to share a brief tour of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN and its accompanying National Civil Rights Museum.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel. The motel declined thereafter and went into foreclosure. But in 1982, a few dedicated community leaders in Memphis decided to try and save the Lorraine from being destroyed. They transformed the site into a museum that provides a comprehensive African-American history.
With 260 artifacts, 40 films, and a vast interactive media museum of oral histories and visual displays, there is truly nothing like this museum anywhere in the world. Erudite, and emotional, my recommendation is to take two full days to visit this museum. You’ll leave with a strong understanding of the African-American experience. For those who can’t visit, here are some features of the museum:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the balcony in front of Room 306 on April 4, 1968. He discussed that evening’s sanitation strike with his aides. At 6:01 pm, a bullet hit and killed Dr. King. The shot was fired from a window in the boarding house across the street. King was rushed to St. Joseph Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:05 pm.
A wreath outside the hotel room commemorates that location. A plaque in front of the hotel quotes Genesis 37: 19-20: “They said one to another. Behold, here cometh the dreamer… Let us slay him… and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Genesis 37: 19-20
National Civil Rights Museum
The museum begins with a history of slavery. One plaque explains: “When the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, some 539,000 people–20 percent of the new nation–were held in bondage. The document’s author, Thomas Jefferson, owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime.”
This room goes on to display a book, The Columbian Orator, from 1812. Recognizing that literacy was the key to freedom, 13-year-old Douglass taught himself to read. He bought The Columbian Orator, a collection of famous speeches on equality and justice. The book helped Douglass hone his speaking skills and he went on to become one of the nation’s leading abolitionists and orators.
From Reconstruction To Jim Crow, 1896-1954
Almost as soon as the gains of Reconstruction were in hand, freedom faded. Jim Crow — a system of oppression enforced by law, custom and violence — replaced slavery. Southern blacks were stripped of the vote, denied justice in court, bound to white landowners, segregated in public places, and terrorized by lynch mobs and violent white supremacists. Blacks who fled the South found other parts of the country just as difficult. Most lived in overcrowded, segregated neighborhoods and worked low-wage jobs.
Blacks fought white supremacy in countless ways: in churches, schools, and businesses, and through networks of friends and family. The museum traces the race riots and lynchings that took place during the Jim Crow years. It also has memorabilia from the black urban renaissance and the creation of American culture despite Jim Crow through jazz, blues and other uniquely African-American art forms.
There’s also a room with a re-creation of the bus in which Rosa Parks sat. As is well-known, in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat in the bus, she was arrested. Other black activists heard of it, including E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, and mobilized the black community for a one-day bus boycott. On December 5th, 90% of black riders stayed off buses.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
The boycott was not only a success but lasted over a year. E.D. Nixon and fellow community leaders founded the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to keep the protest going. They turned to 26-year-old preacher Martin Luther King Jr. to serve as president.
Over 1,000 people packed Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s Holt Street Baptist Church for the MIA’s first meeting. After Dr. King made a speech, Montgomery’s black community agreed to continue the boycott indefinitely. At the heart of the boycotts were the values of non-violence.
However, in February 1956, a grand jury indicted 89 boycott leaders -including nearly 70 ministers-under a 1921 law that prohibited “conspiracies that interfered with a lawful business.” It was an act of intimidation. The white officials’ strategy was to treat the leaders like common criminals and make them seem unworthy of their positions in the movement. E.D. Nixon, Rev. King, Rev. Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, and others, rather than being arrested, walked to the county jail and presented themselves for arrest.
Brown v. Board of Education
Black activists also chipped away at the educational system, winning a landmark ruling: the Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas in 1954. Despite the ruling, in the decades that followed white resistance remained fierce. Carlotta Walls Lanier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, recalled educators telling her, “You’re not going to be able to go to the football games or basketball games. You’re not going to be able to participate in the choir or drama club, or be on the track team. You can’t go to the prom. There were more cannots…”
Student Sit-Ins of the 1960s
The displays go on to show the Greensboro Four and the Rock Hill Nine, who launched boycotts and sit ins by more than 70,000 people in cities and towns across the U.S. Thanks to their non-violent efforts at sustained protest, in 1964 the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in public places.
Perseverance is one of the themes at the National Civil Rights Museum. Other themes include determination, freedom, justice and what one person can do for their community and for the world. I have left out many other displays, such as: the Freedom Riders, the W.E.B. Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington debates, Medgar Evers attempt to vote in Mississippi after he returned from serving in WWII, Selma, the Black Power Movement — to name only a few. This museum is extraordinary.
The last part of the Lorraine Motel museum displays Room 306 where Dr. King spent his last hours. They have preserved the motel’s bed, telephone, and a bible.
The Boarding House and Freedom Sisters
The museum continues across the street at the old boarding house where the shooter killed Dr. King. It shows key items of physical evidence related to the assassination. They also have preserved the bathroom on the second floor where the shooter pulled the trigger. Investigators determined that the single, fatal shot was fired from this bathroom window.
Finally, down the street is a third exhibit space, FREEDOM’S SISTERS, specifically dedicated to the African American women who fought for freedom. Some names featured include: Fannie Lou Hamer, Sonia Sanchez, Frances Watkins Harper, Dorothy Irene Height, Kathleen Cleaver, Medgar Wiley Evers, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Betty Shabazz, C. Delores Tucker, Barbara Charline Jordan, Constance Baker Motley, Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Rosa Louise McCauley Parks and Harriet Ross Greene Tubman.
“Never again will black women be disregarded. We will have our share and parity in American politics.”
The National Civil Rights Museum is so extraordinary, I would make the claim that every American should take a pilgrimage to this location at least once in their life.
- Recommended Reading: On the Road to Freedom: A guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (The Marches, the Struggles, the Triumphs, Speeches, Profiles, 150 Photos, Maps, Web Sites, and 400 Historic Sites) by Charles E. Cobb Jr.
- Check out my slide show of the National Historic Site in Little Rock, Arkansas — Central High School, which chronicles the difficult journey of students who fought school segregation.
- Take a look at the African-American Trail of California where I highlight the places to visit in our state that show challenges and achievements within the African-American community.
- For a wonderful website providing information to the African-American community in San Diego, check out The Chocolate Voice.