If there is one word I would use to describe the National Civil Rights Museum, it is “exhausting.” It is mentally exhausting to review, in great detail, the history of the civil rights movement. By the time we left the museum, after taking in so much, yet really only scratching the surface of what was available, we were both ready to call it a day. But I think maybe that was the point. Toward the end of the exhibits, there was a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. expressing how tired of fighting he was. And when you go through this museum, which details the multitude of smaller struggles that made up the larger fight, you can see why. The entire movement was a constant example of “two steps forward, one step back.” There was always more to be done, there were always new obstacles to overcome, there were oftentimes disagreements over the correct tactics to use. Then there was Mississippi – a state where things were so bad, it required its own strategy entirely.
The museum, which was built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is really, really well done. The complex is made up of several buildings, including the rooming house across the street from which James Earl Ray shot King. The entire museum was renovated in 2014.
With as many museums as we’ve been to recently, we’ve become pretty aware of what we like and what we don’t like. The National Civil Rights Museum did all the things we like: It was modern, it was well organized, it was highly engaging, it made good use of multi-media, and it offered interesting individual, stand-alone exhibits.
For just about every display, the museum offered three distinct levels of information. There was a high level introductory view, a more detailed recitation of the facts, and then a display containing the individual stories of the folks involved in the particular events.
The museum began with a review of the slave trade and the Civil War before launching into a series of detailed exhibits showing the track of progress – both forward and backwards – in various areas of society up through the latter part of the 20th century.
There were 24 different exhibits focusing on everything from the fight to desegregate schools and buses, to particular locales that were flash points in the battle against Jim Crow, to various methodologies the protesters used to bring recognition to their cause and, ultimately, to force change. Several of the exhibits are described below and, as you’ll see, many of them used large physical props to make them more engaging.
Montgomery Bus Boycott – The bus boycott went on for just over a year, from the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and was arrested, to the day a federal court ruled that such segregation was unconstitutional. It was also the first major civil rights protest that Martin Luther King had a lead role in.
Lunch counters – Students began sit-ins at various public lunch counters in southern states to protest segregation. The videos being projected on the wall in this exhibit captured the training program the students went through to teach them how to engage in non-violent protest as well as video of segregationists violently dragging the activists out of restaurants.
The Freedom Riders – The freedom riders rode interstate buses to challenge the failure of the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce Federal laws outlawing segregation in interstate travel. Although the law was clear that segregation was unconstitutional, no one was enforcing it in the south and everything was still segregated. Over the course of several months, groups of activists boarded buses traveling through the deep south and visited waiting rooms, bathrooms, and lunch counters that were still segregated. Oftentimes, the riders were assaulted (as local police looked the other way) and then arrested at the various stops. Eventually, their actions, and the resulting violence they endured, drew the attention of the federal government and forced the Interstate Commerce Commission to act.
Bloody Sunday – On March 7, 1965, several hundred civil rights demonstrators peacefully marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on their way to the state capitol. As they got to the far side of the bridge, they encountered Alabama State Police waiting for them. They were ordered to disperse, but before they could react, they were attacked by the officers. TV cameras captured and broadcast images of the officers violently assaulting protesters with clubs and tear gas, leaving several bloodied and unconscious. Americans were horrified by the images they saw on TV and demanded action in Washington. The events spurred the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Finally, the museum had a large display on the sanitation workers strike in 1968, which is what brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis….
While the National Civil Rights Museum was intended to be about the entire movement, there were several exhibits dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.’s enormous role. As part of the museum’s exhibit about the 1963 March on Washington, they played his entire “I have a dream” speech. I watched as numerous people cycled in and out of the room to watch all or part of the speech.
The museum also contained excerpts from his “mountain top speech,” the speech he gave at a church the night before he was assassinated, a speech which famously ended:
The museum has restored and preserved his hotel room as much as possible (the hotel was not turned into a museum until several years after the assassination), along with placing vehicles consistent with the time period out front.
Central High School
While on the subject of the civil rights movement, when we were in Arkansas, I went to Little Rock to visit the Clinton Presidential Library. Since I was close, I drove over to Central High School which, from the outside, looks exactly the same as it did in 1957 when nine African American students attempted to enroll in the previously segregated school.
The students were prevented from entering the building by the Arkansas National Guard who’d been called out by the Governor, Orval Faubus (because if you’re gonna have a racist governor bullying schoolkids, he should definitely have a name like ‘Orval Faubus’). For three weeks, the situation was a standoff, leading President Eisenhower to eventually order the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to personally escort the kids into the school. While the Little Rock Nine eventually made it inside, they suffered endless abuse from their classmates and the community. If you’re not familiar with the events, do a Google image search on “Little Rock Nine” (and prepare to be horrified).
The school has been designated a National Historic Site and, therefore, falls under the purview of the National Park Service. They have a small visitors center across the street that tells the story of the Little Rock crisis.
The exhibit did an excellent job explaining the history and details of the conflict, and also had an interesting video about the effect the media had on the ultimate outcome. As was the case with the Bloody Sunday protest, when people outside the deep south saw on TV what was going on, they reacted and forced action in Washington.
At the National Civil Rights Museum we saw this letter, sent from a white student to Ernest Green, the first of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from the school…
Like I said: Exhausting. Actually, what I said when I first read this was: “Seriously?? What the FUCK?!” But that’s not the most mature reaction, so you get both….
Anyway, after spending some time at the visitors center, I walked over to the school and happened to get there just as classes were being dismissed for the day. As I crossed the street after taking a photo of the school, I looked back and snapped a quick picture of the scene: white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids… all hanging out in front of their school.