The year was 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike. He was leaving his hotel room for dinner when a bullet struck him in the jaw and severed his spinal cord. King was 39 years old and pronounced dead later that evening at a Memphis hospital.
The Civil Rights Museum, appropriately, is housed in the Lorraine Motel where MLKJ was assassinated. It sits a block or so off one of the main drags in downtown Memphis. They’ve designed it so that you enter through the lobby and wind though a maze of displays; many of them interactive, some with video footage, newsreels, etc. ALL of them gut-wrenchingly chilling.
Although it’s designed for self-guided tours, they allow smaller groups to enter the museum every 10 minutes or so to help with the issue of gridlock. A “holding tank” is a small gallery with rotating exhibits. What luck that the display we saw was photography from the Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom by Lee Friedlander.
The Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom was a march on Washington that happened in 1957. It’s one I knew nothing about. Overshadowed in history books by the 1963 March on Washington, the ’57 march was a key lesson in organizing mass demonstrations and it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Give us the Ballot” speech. King, as well as Mahalia Jackson, Rosa Parks and other freedom fighters from across the country traveled to stand up for their civil rights at this demonstration.
Being a lover of photography, I found this exhibit every bit as compelling as the rest of the museum. Friedlander was adept at capturing the chaos of city life, as well as thoughts behind one’s eyes in a portrait. His duty as photographer at the 1957 event captured the essence of the entire point of the march: unity, passion and courage. There were photos of boy scouts, babies, flags, tired women, strong men….What struck me most, and right away, was one uniting factor of everyone there: their Sunday best. Everyone was dressed to the nines and it added a strong and serious dimension to the photographs. (See a few sample photographs from that exhibit here).
I’ve never been to a museum quite like this. Upon entering the very first room, there are maps, videos, documents and objects that reflect the beginning of slave trade in our country. There’s a space where you can stand, listen to cries and clanking chains while sandwiched in a small walled space made to resemble the underbelly of a slave ship. It’s quite emotional. Every square inch of the motel is used to tell a part of the civil rights story.
You travel from room to room feeling as though you are experiencing all of the pain that these people have gone though, and yet your experience in a museum is nothing comparatively. There’s a wall of telephones where you can pick up receivers and listen to African-Americans tell stories of their experiences in America (good & bad); you can walk through a bus with the words of Rosa Parks stenciled on the wall; you’re invited to sit in a classroom to read letters written by teachers who didn’t recommend students for graduation because they were black.
Three quarters of the way through the displays you are taken to THE MOTEL ROOM. It’s his. It’s where his lunch is till sitting on a stool and cigarettes linger in an ashtray. It’s the last place where Martin Luther King Jr. slept. It’s eery, it’s reverent, it’s heavy.
The stories, the discrimination, the marches, the killings…they just keep going and going. It’s heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story, and yet the endurance is unfathomable. By the end of the very long dark tunnel of exhibits, the light is confirmed as continued resilience and courage, which in the end, CAN make a difference.
Even though it was a very emotional way to spend an afternoon, I’m so glad we visited this museum. It was exhausting though; I couldn’t really read or focus after a while. We didn’t even make it to the Legacy Building across the street, where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot that killed King. We opted for lunch instead, and ruminated on all we had seen and learned.
IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN VISITING THIS MUSEUM, HERE ARE SOME TIPS AND LINKS FOR YOUR VISIT:
Notes about the museum:
• Allow several hours (3? 4?) to see everything at the museum. I really doubt it’s possible to read every caption and watch every video without being there an entire day.
• Make sure you’ve had a good meal before you go; take plenty of water.
• Use the restrooms before you start the tour because there aren’t any until you get to the end (exit through the gift shop)!