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Historical Treasure

Any trip to Memphis should include a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
By Denny Dressman

Students not yet in their teens were milling about near the main entrance at 450 Mulberry St. in Memphis while teachers and some parent chaperones, mostly 40-somethings, struggled to organize the children into small groups.

lunch counter

Above: One of the most dramatic dioramas at the museum, the lunch counter scene is accompanied by news film of peaceful protesters being abused by angry white citizens.

Below: Visitors can climb aboard a Montgomery city bus in which a statue of Rosa Parks awaits just five rows back depicting where she refused to give up her seat. National Civil Rights Museum photos

The class field trip at the National Civil Rights Museum was about to begin.

This unremarkable scene is worth noting for two reasons. First, these students (and their accompanying adults) were about to experience a history lesson like none other in America. Second, it has to do with their ages, as a comparison of census figures from 1960 and 2010 reveals.

Those visitors–whether they were 10, 12 or 45–are among approximately 111 million Americans–more than 40 percent of the country’s current population–who either were born after the U.S. civil rights movement ended or were too young to know what was happening as the historic events unfolded. For them:

  • The blistering fire hoses, snarling police dogs and cowardly bombings in Birmingham, the bloody Selma march–even that hot August day on The Mall in Washington–are little more than the subjects of historic photography.
  • The Freedom Rides, whose 50th anniversary was marked in May this year, are just another violent episode in the African-American struggle for equality.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., honored on his birth date every January for the past 25 years, was never a living, breathing person.

King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, a small minority-owned business on the south edge of downtown Memphis, three blocks from the Mississippi River. Once host to such famous musicians and singers as Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, the Lorraine spiraled toward failure in the wake of this notorious event.

By 1982, the Lorraine Motel was a foreclosed property. A group of prominent Memphians, concerned that this historic site would be destroyed through continued neglect and indifference, formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation to save the Lorraine. In September 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum opened.

Number of visits increasing

That means the museum is 20 years old this year, on Sept. 28, to be precise. Yet if attendance is any indication, it remains a treasure waiting to be discovered among the historical museums of America.

Since 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum has attracted fewer than 3 million visitors. While annual attendance ticks upward each year, it still has not topped 250,000 in a single year, so there’s room for more visitors.

I am old enough to remember the federal troops President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent to Little Rock, Ark., to make sure nine courageous black students could enter Central High School in 1957, yet was too young to understand the significance of what I watched on the black-and-white TV in my parents’ living room in all-white Fort Mitchell, Ky.

Growing up, I saw “colored” drinking fountains and “whites-only” lunch counters in Cincinnati, but didn’t appreciate what they represented. I was a teenager when riots broke out at the University of Mississippi, and when voting rights workers were murdered in another part of that state.

I visited the National Civil Rights Museum while researching a biography of Louisiana’s legendary Grambling State University football coach Eddie Robinson. I spent an entire day there but wished I could have spent a week, and I left convinced that everyone should see the poignant exhibits and learn about (or re-live) what is one of the most pivotal periods in our nation’s history.

The museum’s mission is to chronicle key episodes of the American civil rights movement to inspire participation in civil and human rights efforts around the world. Timelines, dioramas and displays provide a vivid, detailed record of racial struggle from slavery in the 1600s to the pivotal decades of the 1950s and ’60s.

Memorable Experiences Await

Everyone will find his or her own memorable aspects of a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. Here are mine:

  • Seeing J.W. Milam’s chilling words, “What was I supposed to do? He thought he was as good as any white man,” explaining why 14-year-old Emmett Till was bludgeoned and murdered, his body–which was tied to a cotton gin fan–dumped in a river.
  • Reading the actual court documents from the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
  • Boarding the yellow replica Montgomery city bus and seeing the likeness of Rosa Parks seated in the fifth row in the seat she refused to relinquish to make room for a white rider.
  • Hearing a recording of Fannie Lou Hamer, seeking to be seated as a delegate at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and telling the Credentials Committee about the violence she endured and the intimidation she encountered just because “we want to register, to become first-class citizens…(and) live as decent human beings.”
  • Listening to the disjointed telephone conversation between Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett and President John Kennedy just hours before the murderous riot at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Barnett openly opposed the enrollment of James H. Meredith, who was the university’s first black student.
  • Watching film of black student lunch counter protesters sitting peacefully as white citizens blew cigarette smoke in their faces, flicked ashes in their hair and spilled coffee in their laps. A lunch counter diorama is the setting for this video presentation.
  • Approaching the scale model of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, site of the mauling of marchers who were seeking a fair way to register to vote.
  • Viewing Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, King’s room, preserved to look as it did the evening he stepped outside and was gunned down.

After I finished the exhibits in the main museum and explored the museum gift shop, I followed the tunnel to the “Exploring The Legacy” exhibit that chronicles the civil and human rights movement from 1968 to 2000. The interesting exhibit is located in the renovated Young Morrow Building, the location from which the fatal shot was fired and where accused assassin James Earl Ray stayed in April 1968. You may leave with many unanswered questions after viewing the thought-provoking displays in this annex.

Ray confessed to the murder in March 1969, but he recanted the confession three days later. After pleading guilty to avoid a trial that could have ended in a death sentence, Ray was sentenced to a 99-year prison term. He died of liver disease in 1998, and the debate continues today over King’s killer.

When touring the National Civil Rights Museum, allow plenty of time to get the most out of the visit, be prepared to read a lot, and expect to learn. As one young woman from Illinois put it, “After visiting, I realized how little I knew (or how little we were taught in school) about MLK and the civil rights movement in general.” It’s a sentiment that many people surely have.

She is one of 111 million.

Denny Dressman is a contributor from Greenwood Village, Colo.

Jul/Aug 2011 Issue


For more information, contact the National Civil Rights Museum at
(901) 521-9699 or visit online at

To plan your Memphis getaway, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you .


Museum Metamorphosis

The first phase of a $26 million renovation project is underway at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

This new space will double the museum’s collections and archives storage area on the first floor of the Lorraine Motel, and it will expand exhibition areas on the second floor.

Construction will not force any current exhibit areas to close.

The original Lorraine Motel was gutted down to original walls when the museum was built. The current renovation will make use of space previously not utilized. Work for the initial phase of construction is expected to be complete in August of this year.

The overall design calls for a new museum shop, a grand staircase and posts with audio installed in the courtyard to introduce the site’s history and segue visitors to the Young Morrow Building.

An exhibit, “Portrait of a Movement: Building the Museum,” will be on view through Sept. 18. Letters, photographs and artifacts will help tell the story of how the National Civil Rights Museum came to be.

– Deborah Reinhardt

Loraine Motel
The renovation will make use of some space in the original Lorraine Motel that was previously not utilized for the museum. National Civil Rights Museum photo

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