At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, you can experience the fight for freedom and equality through history. Read on to learn more.
When I think of past trips, I remember places where significant historical events occurred. The battlefield at Gettysburg. The Normandy Beaches. The Berlin Wall. The site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. I added another to the list when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
The museum is in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. When you stand outside the main entrance, you’re 20 yards from the balcony where he was standing when it happened.
Inside the National Civil Rights Museum, exhibits bring the fight for equality to life as you meet Dr. King and his disciples. You also meet Rosa Parks, the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” the students who fought for the right to be served at lunch counters throughout the South, and the sanitation workers who went on strike to force the City of Memphis to provide safe equipment and better pay.
Pro Tip: Visit the State of Tennessee Gallery to the left of the ticket counter before you begin your museum tour. It’s a rotating exhibit and changes three or four times per year.
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A Culture of Resistance
The Culture of Resistance exhibit was the perfect way to begin because it shows the global impact of slavery. A statue of a slave trader taking bids on a female slave who’s cuddling her baby was especially poignant.
Lighted maps of North and South America, Europe, and Africa provide information and eye-opening statistics about the Atlantic slave trade, showing the number of people captured, the goods they cultivated, and the wealth they created.
Pro Tip: The next stop is a movie. Finish visiting the Culture of Resistance exhibit before you enter the theater. You exit from the other side of the theater when the movie ends and can’t go back.
They Stood for Justice by Sitting
I can’t imagine how I’d feel if a restaurant refused my business. However, lunch counter staff routinely refused to serve “Coloreds.” One day, four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students decided it was time for a change.
On February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil sat down at a white-only lunch counter at F.W. Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service.
The staff refused and asked them to leave. They stayed in their seats until closing time and returned with 25 more students the next morning. On the third day, 63 students joined the sit-in, and three white female students from the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina joined the following day.
By the fifth day, there were over 300 demonstrators at Woolworths, and the movement expanded to other Greensboro stores and stores in other North Carolina cities, including Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Durham. The movement spread across the South between 1960 and 1961 and included 70,000 Black and White participants.
F.W. Woolworths finally agreed to negotiate but only made small changes. So, the sit-ins continued. The City of Greensboro responded with more restrictive segregation policies, and police arrested 45 students and charged them with trespassing. This led to a widespread boycott of stores with segregated lunch counters, and sales plummeted.
The store owners finally gave in, and six months after their first sit-in, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil returned to Woolworths and enjoyed lunch.
She Refused to Give Up Her Seat
I saw an authentic 50s-era bus at the next National Civil Rights Museum exhibit and learned it was a replica of the one Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to give up her seat.
On December 1, 1955, Parks boarded a Montgomery city bus and sat in the first row of the “Negro” section.” City law mandated separate White and “Colored” areas on buses and authorized drivers to add more white seats if necessary. When the driver saw white passengers standing in the aisle, he asked Parks and three other Black passengers to move. The other passengers complied, but Parks refused.
The police arrested and fined her for violating a city ordinance. The Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) helped her appeal the conviction and challenge legal segregation in Alabama.
The NAACP also organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 381 days. From December 5, 1955, the day of Park’s trial, to December 20, 1956, Blacks refused to ride city buses, and the company “felt the pain” because 70% of its riders were Black.
People throughout the US joined the cause and protested segregated restaurants, pools, and other public facilities. On November 13, 1956, the US Supreme Court declared public transportation segregation was unconstitutional.
There’s a statue of Rosa Parks on the bus. When I stood by the driver’s seat to take a picture, I knew how it felt to be treated like Black riders during that era. As I was lining up my shot, a recording of a man’s voice yelled, “GET OUT OF THAT SEAT! I WANT TO SIT THERE!” I almost jumped out of my skin!
Sanitation Workers Say Enough Is Enough
The National Civil Rights Museum exhibit about the Memphis sanitation worker strike was sobering. We learned that sanitation employees worked long hours for unreasonably low wages, and many relied on public assistance. They earned $0.65 per hour ($5.69 in today’s dollars) and received no overtime pay or benefits.
The job was also dangerous because the sanitation equipment was old and often didn’t work properly. Workers had begged the city to fix or replace equipment, but Mayor Henry Loeb refused to replace broken-down trucks.
The situation reached the boiling point when two sanitation workers suffered a gruesome death on February 1, 1968. They were sitting in the back of their truck during a thunderstorm and were crushed when their equipment malfunctioned. According to city rules, the compactor barrel was the only place workers were allowed to take shelter during bad weather.
City leaders ignored the equipment, safety, and pay issues and refused to compensate the victims’ families. They also refused to recognize the sanitation workers union. So, on February 12, 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike to demand safer working conditions and higher pay.
Civil Rights leaders arrived in Memphis to rally the strikers, and one, Reverend James Lawson, told them, “At the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men.”
“I Am A Man” became the rallying cry of the Civil Rights movement, and the National Civil Rights Museum exhibit shows hundreds of striking workers wearing sandwich boards with that message.
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
The last exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum was the most moving. Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel is frozen in time and looks exactly as it did on April 4, 1968. The bed is made, and a food tray is on the coffee table. An ashtray with a partially smoked cigarette is on the desk, and two cars from 50 years ago are in the parking lot.
Until the Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, the NAACP and civil rights leaders focused mainly on racial equality. The walkout prompted them to expand their efforts to fight for workers’ rights. Dr. King visited Memphis several times to support the workers. His final visit was on April 3rd, and he and Ralph Abernathy checked into room 306. The owners of the Lorraine Motel called it the “King-Abernathy suite” because the two stayed in the room so often.
A bomb scare had delayed their flight, and it was pouring rain. Dr. King thought few people would attend the rally at Mason Temple and asked Abernathy to stand in for him. However, the crowd refused to leave until they heard Dr. King speak.
That night, King gave his famous “I’ve Been to Mountaintop” speech, the last he’d ever give. On April 4, 1968, he stepped onto the hotel balcony to speak with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) colleagues in the parking lot below. An assassin fired a single shot from a nearby rooming house and wounded him on his neck and face. An ambulance rushed him to St. Joseph’s Hospital, and doctors pronounced him dead at 7:05 that evening.
I’ve always believed James Earl Ray was the assassin, but I learned that may not be true. Even Dr. King’s descendants have their doubts.
A Man With a Dream
The Lorraine Motel never rented room 306 again after Dr. King’s assassination. It’s preserved as a memorial and a tribute to the life and legacy of a civil rights leader with a dream. A large white wreath hangs from the balcony, and the Lorraine Motel marquee displays iconic messages of hope for a future with freedom and equality for all.
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Visit the National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum is located at 450 Mulberry Street in the South Main District in downtown Memphis. There’s a parking lot behind the museum, and parking is available along the street. You can also take the Main Street Trolley and get off at Huling, Butler, or GE Patterson Avenue.
The museum is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm daily and is closed on Tuesday, New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. The museum is open on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, Independence Day, and Labor Day, but administrative offices are closed. There are extended hours during the summer from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. Tickets have time stamps, and you must purchase them online. For more information, call (901) 521-9699. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more historical travel and more places to travel in the Southern US.