I spent an emotional morning at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN a few months ago. This educational visit was deeply moving, and I’ve been struggling with finding my voice to share it with you ever since. It has taken me a while to publish this article because I wanted it to be more than one of my standard travelogues. If you follow my blog you know that I am business writer. I write about facts, stay on topic, and keep the details concise. But this museum deserves so much more, especially in light of recent events that highlight the work still to be done in our country.
The museum is located at the site of one of the Civil Rights movement’s defining events, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. On the outside, the Lorraine Motel looks much as it did that day. A funeral wreath of red and white carnations hangs on the railing to mark the spot where Dr. King fell. There are audiovisual stations where you can learn why he was in town on this occasion and how the events transpired. Directly across Mulberry Street is the boarding-house window from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal round. Both of these buildings are now part of the museum.
Inside are comprehensive multi-media exhibits, providing a history through slavery and the civil rights movement in North America from 1619 to the present. I was heartbroken and ashamed of my forefathers from the very first exhibit, a graphic representation of the global impact of slavery. It was a painful reminder that much of our country was built on the back of slaves, torn from their families. I’m always shocked when I encounter people who downplay the depth of this evil enterprise. Sadly, most people don’t know that the first slave ship docked in Jamestown, Va., in August 1619, a year before the pilgrims dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock. And most aren’t aware that slavery in this country didn’t officially end until Dec. 6, 1865, the day the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
Of course after slavery ended there was the rise of Jim Crow laws barring African Americans from sharing the same buses, schools and other public facilities as whites. The museum highlights the struggle for equality at many stages the Civil Rights movement. The interactive exhibits try to give you a first hand experience of what people went though. You can get on a bus with a statue of Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat and hear the bus driver threaten her.
You see a recreated version of the Freedom Riders’ bombed bus. You learn how law enforcement looked the other way and sometimes even organized the brutal assaults against these young men and women who simply wanted to be able to travel anywhere in the country and use the same bathrooms and waiting rooms as anyone else.
You learn about the 1968 Memphis strike by African American sanitation workers demanding a living wage and safe working conditions as they paraded through the streets holding placards that read “I am a man.” You realize that these events really didn’t occur all that long ago. My parents would have been in high school when the Little Rock 9 attempted to integrate into Arkansas public schools and were forcibly stopped by National Guardsmen under the orders of the Governor. The hate just boggles my mind.
As I walked through the museum, I asked myself how these events could have transpired–why didn’t more white people stand up for what is right? Then I asked myself what would I have done? I tried to imagine how I’d have responded if I were in Little Rock after Brown V. Board of Education, or Greensboro during the lunch counter sit-ins. Would I have walked across the bridge in Selma? Would I have stood up for the rights of the oppressed even if it endangered my own rights? Or would I have hidden and ignored the whole thing? I would like to believe that I would have been a Freedom Rider, but I’m ashamed to say I probably would have been too afraid. So where’s the balance? What can we who are not oppressed do to help those who are?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Consider joining the National Civil Rights Museum in committing to a year of peace and action. Click here to sign up for the MLK50 PLEDGE and over the course of 50 weeks beginning in April 2018, they will send you 50 achievable actions that help realize Dr. King’s legacy of peace.