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The Rights Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee presents key episodes of the American Civil Rights Movement and examines today’s global human rights issues.


In the early evening of April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of America’s civil rights movement, stepped onto the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Moments later, an assassin’s shot rang out and King fell to the floor. He had come to Memphis a day earlier to support a strike of the city’s predominantly African American sanitation workers. He and his entourage stayed at the Lorraine Motel because, at a time when overt racial segregation was still practiced in America’s South, it was one of the few hotels in the city where African Americans were welcome. King had stayed at the motel numerous times before. It was also quite popular among songwriters and musicians, including Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding.

Today, the Lorraine Motel has a new role. It is the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Its mission is to tell the story of the movement that led to the end of racial segregation. Even the boarding house opposite the motel, from where King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, fired the fateful shot, has been acquired and is part of the museum. The motel has been designated a historic site by the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Established in 1991, the museum uses interactive exhibits, events, historic documents, films and other artifacts to tell the story of the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. It also examines current civil and human rights issues around the globe.

The museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and is a founding member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. The coalition brings together historic sites, museums and memory initiatives from all around the world that connect past struggles to today’s human rights and social justice movements.

“We don’t really see [the museum] as a collection of artifacts sitting on shelves getting dusty,” says Terri Lee Freeman, the museum’s president. Instead, according to its mission statement, it “provokes thoughtful debate and serves as a catalyst for positive social change.”

The museum regularly invites thought leaders to lecture, and has commissioned research into such issues as persistent economic disparities between African Americans and other sections of society. The museum plans to soon start a program to train school teachers about these issues. It has created a six-month program, called Unpacking Racism for Action, in which groups of about 30 people from different races and walks of life meet regularly to discuss “issues of implicit bias and structural racism.”

“We try to encourage people to have a debate about uncomfortable subjects,” says Freeman.

The museum offers 260 artifacts, more than 40 new films and several interactive media and audio recordings that guide visitors through five centuries of history—from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the beginning of the resistance to slavery, through the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, the rise of Jim Crow (state and local laws that enforced racial segregation), and the key events of the second half of the 20th century in which a large number of people stood up for equality.

Current exhibits include the works of Romare Bearden, one of the 20th century’s leading visual artists and a champion of social action against racism and racial stereotypes; and “Ferguson Voices: Disrupting the Frame,” about the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, a young black man, by the police in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident propelled the Black Lives Matter movement to national attention. In addition, the museum is exhibiting “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement,” a collection of videos from eyewitnesses, activists and icons of the movement, hosted on a touchscreen platform. 

 

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.