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Renovated National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis honors history (w/video)


The shuttle bus driver picks us up at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and quickly launches into a story. Like a lot of people in Memphis, and the city itself, she has a connection to the tumultuous era that touched so many Southern cities.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had come to Memphis in early April 1968 to support striking African-American sanitation workers. They were making less money than their white counterparts and forced to use inferior equipment. The dangerous situation led to the deaths of two workers.

Our bus driver's father was among the 1,300 workers who had walked off the job. The mayor refused to meet with them. The FBI beefed up its operations in the city. And then King arrived. He marched with workers and gave one of his most memorable speeches in Memphis. On the evening of April 3, he told a crowd at Mason Temple that they would get to the Promised Land of freedom. "I may not get there with you," he said prophetically in what is now known as the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.

Within 24 hours, King would be dead, felled by an assassin's bullet. In Memphis. On a balcony at the Lorraine Motel. The shot came from a seedy boardinghouse across Mulberry Street.

It was a frightening and painful time, the bus driver told us. Then pride creeps into her voice.

The museum, she said, tells our story. And now, people from all over the world visit it.

"Imagine that," she said as she dropped off yet another load of tourists at a downtown hotel.

Museum 2.0

A $28 million renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel has brought the 23-year-old facility into the modern era. The museum was closed for a year and a half as improvements and new exhibits were completed, much of them including archival videos and other interactive touches. In various places, visitors can sit to listen to King speeches or the stories of other prominent civil rights activists along with historical interpretations of those involved with the slave trade. In one evocative display, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is projected onto a cell wall, his words coming from a speaker.

The museum's reopening in April coincided with the 46th anniversary of King's death, and is representative of the New South's willingness to publicly face the ugliness of the time. Memphis isn't the only city that has formally recognized its divisive history.

The Woolworths in Greensboro, N.C., where the student lunch counter sit-in sparked a national movement, is also now a civil rights museum. Across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bombing killed four girls on their way to Sunday school, is another museum that tells the story of the struggle.

In June, the $100 million Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in Atlanta, King's hometown, and Mississippi will commemorate its place in the civil rights movement with a state museum in Jackson, scheduled to open in 2017.

But today, I am at the Lorraine Motel, a step back in time but with lessons that seem current. Ferguson, Mo., and the August shooting of Michael Brown crossed my mind several times as I walked through the galleries. So did Trayvon Martin.

Motel history

Even before King was killed on the balcony, the Lorraine was well-known. During segregation, it was one of the few motels where African-Americans could get accommodations. In Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s, the motel didn't just welcome everyday travelers.

Musicians like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, and many others, came to Memphis to make records for the Stax label (the studio is now also a museum), and stayed at the Lorraine. Besides its place in civil rights history, Memphis is known as the birthplace of Southern soul music. Funk and soul bounce through the clubs of Beale Street (think New Orleans' Bourbon Street but smaller) and there's outright adoration of Elvis Presley, being that Graceland is just 10 miles out of town.

The civil rights era moved to a different beat, horrifying and doleful at times, uplifting at others. You'll experience those feelings as you wind through the ingenious museum. From the outside, the tableau is frozen in time. The two-story building looks much the way it did the day King checked in. Vintage cars are parked out front and aqua doors are set off by yellow walls. The signs haven't changed, though Mulberry Street is blocked off to traffic.

But once inside, everything is different. In fact, it's difficult to even imagine that the Lorraine was a motel. There's a soaring atrium that leads to a gift shop upstairs. Welcoming attendants take tickets and start you on your journey.

(To seriously take in the exhibits, give yourself a couple of hours. I was there four.)

The first exhibit, on the slave trade, sets a somber tone. Maps on the floor trace the routes to the West from Africa. Statues of shackled men stuffed below a deck of a transport ship are just a nod to the horrors that the captives experienced. One in five died en route, some jumping overboard to end their agony.

Visitors move through the museum as if they are walking through history: Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), student lunch counter sit-ins (1960) and then on to the Birmingham bombing (1963) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). There are exhibits on the Black Power and Black Pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

But through it all, there's a pull toward Room 306 and that balcony.

Through all the tough visual images, King's spirit guides visitors with his inspirational words and calming assurance. "We shall overcome," he said, but we know now what he did not when he said those words.

You feel King's hand when you walk down the aisle of a Montgomery city bus, a statue of Rosa Parks sitting toward the front. Sit on the bench across from her. It's powerful. The renovation has updated the exhibit and statues of everyday women, modern women, walk toward the bus stop, their experience much different than Parks'.

Linger at the lunch counter replica. On this day, a group of tourists have plopped down on the diner seats. They sit next to the protesting students. Hecklers line the wall and images of protest are projected on a nearby screen. King's perseverance is here too.

Room 306 has been preserved as it was the day King was shot. There are coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. A newspaper is tossed on a bed. Nothing really unusual, which somehow makes it all the more momentous. That history happened in such an ordinary place must still surprise many.

I step out onto the balcony, in the same spot where that famous photo was made. King on the ground and all those men, among them Andrew Young, who would go on to a noteworthy political career, pointing across the street toward where the bullet came from.

The boardinghouse is part of the museum now and I cross Mulberry Street and go upstairs. The dreary room where assassin James Earl Ray stayed and the bathroom where he stood to fire the fatal shot are preserved. I look through a window to see what he saw. The balcony seems so far away.

Lasting impression

The genius of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is that it's likely you'll walk away feeling inspired and in awe of the indomitable human spirit. It's a must-stop on a tour of Memphis, in between the honky-tonks of Beale Street and the barbecue joints. As a commemoration of the civil rights struggle, it succeeds in many ways. There isn't much mention of the complications of the era, such as the disagreement in the movement between King's pacifist teachings and Malcolm X's more strident outlook. The criminal activity that surrounded the Black Panthers doesn't get much attention.

Still, it provokes thought and conversation. That's what the bus driver told me.

Contact Janet K. Keeler at Follow @RoadEats.