Today, on the national holiday celebrating the birth of the Martin Luther King, Jr., there’s a news story about how King has been simplified into an icon and a catchphrase, and the details of his life and work have been softened, blurred, and appropriated. Being seven years old when he was killed, I certainly remember the event, but could not begin to understand his significance at the time. We were not taught much about him in school; perhaps he was still too controversial. What I did learn came from public television and my own readings.
A few years ago, however, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was surprised by how powerfully it told its story — a story which also has been reduced to shorthand even as it has unfolded, since some of its features are so uncomfortable to face in full.
The museum is a walk-though civil rights timeline, built around the former Lorraine Motel at 450 Mulberry St., where Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
Going in, I didn’t know what to expect. It begins undramatically, with informational exhibits recounting the beginnings of slavery in the British colonies, then proceeds down halls and through rooms, laying out the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement chronologically.
The effect is cumulative. As you pass Ku Klux Klan robes, recreated buses, lunch counters, and jail cells, and you view video of the March on Washington, human heroism wrestles human cruelty over and over in the streets and in courthouses of city after city, and you gain a profound sense of the broad and massive cultural shift that was being willed and resisted by both ordinary and extraordinary people. Gradually, all the individual events and artifacts add up to an astonishing whole.
Finally, the museum’s path takes you upstairs, and you are standing in front of motel room 306, where Dr. King dressed for dinner on April 4, 1968. The room is restored to look exactly as he left it that evening, and just outside is the balcony where he was struck down. It’s one thing to see that balcony in passing from the outside, and it’s another to see it in context, at the end of all the history that came before.
If you’re ever visiting Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum is worth a couple hours of your time. There’s been some dispute recently about its makeup and its mission (museum protester Jacqueline Smith started keeping her own vigil across the street way back in 1988) but I don’t know where else this key narrative of our American family is so effectively enshrined.
I do know that I will never forget the impression it made.