National Civil Rights Museum
I stood where he stood, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on April 4, 1968.
Chilling doesn’t begin to describe it.
It was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., just across the street from a rooming house bathroom window, from which James Earl Ray shot the bullet that killed Martin Luther King Jr. that day, 46 years ago.
The National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991, is located in and around the Loraine Motel, as a monument to the man who worked so hard for civil rights in the mid-20th century. It also honors those who have fought and continue to fight for equality.
Currently, the visit to the balcony is the culmination of a self-guided tour through the U.S. civil rights movement on three floors of the nearby Legacy Building. During the $27.5 million renovation, the balcony experience is the only way to view the motel room where Dr. King was staying at the time of his death.
“The museum tells the more-than-three-century story of the civil rights movement- from 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to our shores to the present. Not to mention, it preserves the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination – his murder is arguably one of the most pivotal moments in American history,” Connie Dyson, museum communications coordinator, said. “The museum preserves the legacy of the Americans who fought courageously for equality and justice … stories from which future generations of children will learn.”
The museum’s campus consists of The Legacy Building, the Lorraine Motel, the traveling exhibit space around the corner at 115 Hurling Ave. and the Lorraine Hotel, which houses administration offices and a library.
THE LEGACY BUILDING
The tour of The Legacy Building, which opened in 2002 and is located across the street from the Lorraine Motel, begins with the timeline from 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America, and continues through the day King was killed.
Visitors then can watch an orientation film, “America’s Civil Rights Story,” a 10-minute overview of the civil rights movement through the present.
Ascending to the second floor, it is there we revisit another timeline; this one details King’s final days, from November 1967 through his death. It pinpoints King’s and Ray’s activities during that time.
Next, we examine the rooming house where Ray stayed on the day of the assassination. There in front of us is the bathroom window that has been documented as the site of the fatal shot. The bathroom is behind glass, but next to the room is another window, with a similar vantage point as the one the killer had that day.
That was as chilling as standing on the balcony.
Display cabinets hold evidence from the scene and evidence that led to the arrest of Ray.
Visitors also can explore “lingering questions,” such as: Did James Earl Ray act alone? Was there a conspiracy? Was James Earl Ray framed? Was the government involved? Did someone else do it – the military, the Memphis Police Department, colleagues, the mob? Was the FBI part of a conspiracy or part of a coverup?
The quest for answers began seconds after the assassination and continues today.
In the year 2000, the U.S. Justice Dept. announced that there was “no evidence to disturb the 1969 decision that Ray was the sole assassin.”
Visitors also can view the documentary, “The Witness,” a 30-minute film featuring the Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles’ account of the assassination on the balcony.
After spending time digesting the exhibits, questions and answers in the Legacy Building, visitors then can walk through Founders Park to the Lorraine Motel Balcony. It is there visitors can peer into room 306, the room in which Dr. King was staying at the time of his death. The room has been recreated as it was in 1968.
I needed a deep breath before ascending the stairs to the balcony. Although outside amid the hustle and bustle of Memphis city streets, the atmosphere is quiet and somber. But yet, it was almost as if I could hear the sounds of the bullet and the screams of the onlookers.
The Lorraine Motel Building is expected to reopen April 4. Once the renovations are complete, it will no longer be possible to stand on the balcony. But, visitors will be able to look into the motel room from the other side, from inside the Lorraine Motel, as they did before the renovations.
THE LORRAINE MOTEL BUILDING
The Lorraine Motel Building houses exhibits such as the replica of the bus from the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, the lunch counter from the sit-ins of 1960 and the garbage truck from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.
When the building reopens in April, with the completed renovations, there will be more visitor comforts, more interactive components, more film experiences, a reconfigured floor plan and a larger display space devoted to the years 1965-1968, according to Tracy Lauritzen Wright, director of administration and special projects. She is heading up the renovation project.
The experience at the Lorraine Motel starts at the beginning of the civil rights movement, when Africans were captured in their homes and transported into slavery. Their art, music, culture, as well as the economics of slave trade will be presented. A floor map with illuminated channels will detail slave trade and its economy.
Other historic events presented in the building include: the Civil War and reconstruction; the rise of the Jim Crow segregation laws and combatting them; the Brown vs. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court declared state laws establishing segregated schools unconstitutional. A courtroom setting and a classroom setting, as well as a giant map of the United States showing where segregation and desegregation existed, are part of the exhibit.
Visitors will still board the Montgomery bus as they did in the previous bus exhibit. A streetscape has been incorporated with the sanitation truck exhibit, with a look at the chronology of the sanitation workers strike that prompted Dr. King’s visit to Memphis in April of 1968.
The stories from cities important in the civil rights movement, such as Albany, Ga., Selma, Miss., Birmingham, Ala., and of course, Memphis, are told via speeches, video, audio, interviews and more.
There is video of President John F. Kennedy calling for the National Civil Rights Act, audio of Dr. King giving the “I Have A Dream” speech, as well as others who were at the podium that day, Wright said.
Black Power, Black Pride, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, progress over the years and how to inspire people to continue the work for civil rights, are covered at the Lorraine Motel Building.
“Acts of Courage” – one- to two-minute documentaries of people involved in the civil rights movement – are sprinkled throughout the building’s exhibits. At one point, visitors can join in song for a unique interactive experience, Wright said.
Freedom’s Sisters Exhibit
Just a block away around the corner, is the Freedom’s Sisters interactive exhibit, which had been a traveling exhibit but now has been gifted to the National Civil Rights Museum. The exhibit was created by the Cincinnati Museum Center and organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service.
The exhibit space is located at 115 Hurling Ave. at the south corner of Mulberry Street.
Visitors can read and hear about 20 African-American women – historic figures and contemporary leaders – who have fought for freedom and equality. Children – and adults – can create their own book with pages that tell about each of the women’s accomplishments.