Former Motel Marks King Legacy

Civil rights museum traces the fight for racial justice through you-were-there exhibits

VISITING the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is like stepping back in time to the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle.

The museum, which opened in 1991, is built around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The dated neon motel sign still stands out front, and Rooms 306 and 307 where King and his entourage were staying that April night have been preserved. But the modern museum structure now envelopes the original building.

Inside, the walls are lined with historical displays. Explanatory text chronicles the struggle for freedom dating back to slavery and extending to the civil rights movement and King's death.

Throughout the museum, major exhibits re-create the settings and drama of historic events and turning points in the civil rights movement.

First, there is a bus to mentally transport visitors back to Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. A plaster figure representing Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man sparked the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, sits in the front of the bus. When visitors step aboard and sit down in the front, a recorded voice shouts: ``I need that seat now, please move back.''

If the obstinate museumgoer refuses to move, the bottom of the seat is rapped loudly and the plaster bus driver's voice commands: ``Get up from there. Move to the back of the bus. If you don't move out of that seat, I'll have you arrested.''

Finally, the visitor is told: ``In 1955, if you had not moved by this point, you would be arrested.''

A video next to this bus (which was used in the movie ``A Long Walk Home'') tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the eventual desegregation of the city's public transportation.

Around the corner from the bus, a 1960s dime-store lunch counter is frozen in the middle of a sit-in. Several black students - made of plaster - sit at the counter complete with napkin dispensers, red and yellow condiment bottles, and salt-and-pepper shakers. Two menacing-looking statues of white men stand nearby as if poised to haul the students out of the restaurant.

The scene is brought to life by video screens behind the counter showing historic sit-ins. In one clip, a black man is pulled from his counter stool to the floor and arrested. By the time the film starts over, visitors may be tempted to reach for one of the napkins off the counter and wipe away a tear.

The life-size exhibits also include a jail cell representing the one in which King wrote his ``Letter from Birmingham Jail'' in 1963.

For the museum's final exhibit, visitors arrive at Room 306 and 307 of the Lorraine Motel. The rooms, preserved behind glass, have been refurbished and arranged as they were on the evening of April 4, 1968. A wreath hangs on the balcony where King was standing when he was shot. Despite the passage of more than a quarter-century, the loss that occurred here is still palpable today.

Fundamentally, this is an educational institution, says the museum's executive director Juanita Moore. ``This museum exists to teach people the lessons of the civil rights movement,'' she says. ``It's important that people understand how this society has come to be the way it is.''

But Jacqueline Smith, the last tenant of the Lorraine Motel, views the museum in a different light.

For the last six years, she has waged a full-time protest urging visitors to boycott the National Civil Rights Museum.

Ms. Smith moved into the motel in 1972 and left only when she was forcibly evicted in 1988 so that construction of the museum could go forward. She then continued her one-woman protest on the sidewalk across Mulberry Street.

Smith criticizes the museum as ``a moneymaker set up to profit from a great man's tragic death.'' King advocated feeding the hungry and helping house the poor, she argues. ``I believe that some of that should be going on across the street. But instead they have turned the Lorraine Motel into a high-tech tourist trap.''

THE best monument to Martin Luther King Jr., Smith says, would be a community center at the Lorraine, offering housing, job training, free community college, and health services for the poor. ``All this has nothing to with Martin Luther King,'' she says of the museum. ``They have turned the site of his death into a Hollywood-style exhibit.''

``It's not an either/or for us,'' Ms. Moore responds. ``Education was a major part of the civil rights movement. There are many empty buildings and sites in this community that could be used to do all the things that Jackie Smith talks about.... If she's truly serious about feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and ensuring that Dr. King's dream is realized, let's talk about how to do it.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.