You can prepare yourself for what you’ll see at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, or you can show up there and get mentally walloped without much warning, but either way, do not miss an opportunity to visit.
I’d been doing a lot of reading about the movement before my visit to the Mississippi Delta gave me a chance to see the museum. To walk through the exhibits and see civil rights history brought to life was physically painful for me. Abstract events, books, and speeches are one thing; the reality of the years-long fight for voting rights and desegregation is quite another.
It really happened. Those were real people, all of them who were involved on both sides, and many are still alive today. Some of the underlying issues have not gone away, either.
I recommend Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Dr. Martin Luther King – Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, then Pillar of Fire, which covers 1963-1965, and finally At Canaan’s Edge, 1965-1968.
There is also an excellent documentary about the movement as a whole – Eyes on the Prize.
Although we seem to hear more about civil rights activities in the 1960’s, a lot was going on in the 1950’s and earlier, including economic resistance through transportation: the famous Montgomery bus boycott is one of the first museum exhibits you’ll see.
It was “The Year They Walked,” and as I learned from reading Parting the Waters, the bus boycott was one of Martin Luther King’s first efforts at organizing community resistance to Jim Crow laws. At the time, he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church there in Montgomery, Alabama.
After Rosa Parks said that she would not give up her seat and move to the “Colored” section, blacks in Montgomery refused to ride public buses from the day of the Parks court hearing until 381 days later, when the Supreme Court finally ruled such segregation unconstitutional.
Probably two of the most terrifying books I read about the movement were Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (seen in the “We Are Prepared to Die” section of the museum,) and Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.
They were terrifying because they laid bare the white power structure’s absolutely savage resistance to ANY attempt at gaining voting rights, or refusal to accept “separate but equal” (which of course was far from equal.) The later rise of the Black Power movement, also detailed in the museum, is a lot more understandable once you learn about and comprehend what happened to black people who were powerless.
Bruce Watson’s Freedom Summer book details stories of black citizens trying over and over to walk up their local courthouse steps to register to vote, and either being beaten on the spot, or having to deal with a house or church bombing or other terrorizing activities a few hours or days later.
The museum’s wall of photos of some of the people who resisted anyway is a poignant reminder that sometimes, you have to put bodies on the line. So many of them were so very young, too….
I warn you, reading Freedom Summer is exhausting, because some sort of crisis, shooting, bombing, or killing seems to have happened nearly every day that summer. “Mississippi Burning” is not an exaggeration of what was happening on the ground.
Activist teams monitored their members carefully – people had to call in to confirm their safety as they moved around the state, especially at night, and of course they had to find a reasonably safe landline telephone to do so.
A calendar tracking the events of each day from one month is telling.
As you continue through the museum, you sense the tension increasing in each exhibit.
Standing in the section about the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike, there’s a feeling of dread, because we know how it ends on April 4.
One of the last stops is looking through a window into Rooms 306 and 307, where Dr. King was staying before he was shot on the Lorraine Motel’s balcony.
It’s suspended in time, with human touches like slightly rumpled bed linen, a rabbit-eared TV, coffee cups, and an ashtray with a few cigarette butts.
There is always something new going on around the museum – special exhibits, presentations, and performances, and nearby attractions like the Blues Hall of Fame. I didn’t have a chance to view the Legacy Building across the street from the Lorraine (the boarding house from where the fatal shot was fired) but it’s certainly on my list for when I return to Memphis.
You cannot only see this museum once. The civil rights story is still alive. We haven’t reached the end yet. There is always more to see and learn.
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