Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel in Memphis to learn the Civil Rights history in the US

Can a museum emotionally move someone? Yes, it can indeed, especially in America, where they can tell and show like nowhere else in the world. It has happened to us in several places and museums, but a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum is particularly moving.

Housed inside the Lorraine Motel, the motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, the National Civil Rights Museum is a true interactive narrative of the history of civil rights in America and the struggle to win them. A tale made up of documents, letters, newspapers, film footage, audio or video recordings of the time, photos, stories, laws, protests, and the well-preserved room where Martin Luther King, leader of the civil rights struggle, spent his last moments of life. They describe themselves as “The greatest Civil Rights Story Ever Told” and never the description has been more accurate.
As always, however, let’s proceed in order.

The Lorraine Motel was established at 450 Mulberry Street in 1925, under the name Windsor Hotel, which later changed to Marquette Hotel until 1945, when it was sold. It was purchased by Walter Bailey that same year and renamed the Lorraine Motel in honor of Walter’s wife, Loree, and the song “Sweet Lorraine” by Nat King Cole. The hotel included only a bar and the Bailey’s quarters at the time of purchase. It was not until ten years later, in 1955, that construction of the actual hotel on the east side was completed, containing 16 rooms, to which 12 more rooms were later added. It was one of the few hotels where African American travelers could stay overnight during the years of segregation and Jim Crow laws, even being named in the famous “Green Book.”
Car access, ample parking, a swimming pool and large front windows were later added to the hotel, again thanks to the Bailey renovations, changes that transformed the hotel into a motel. The new design reflected the Googie style – well represented by Lorraine’s sign, with its turquoise frame, yellow oval, and white circles – inspired by the space age, popular in California in the 1950s and 1960s.
Over the years it gained a reputation, and guests of all races and colors returned, again and again, to stay there because of its refined atmosphere, home-cooked meals, affordable prices, and the reputation of a clean and safe environment. Between the late 1940s and early 1960s, the Lorraine Motel hosted Stax Records artists and other black celebrities, including Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, and Sam Cooke. Incidentally, two famous songs, Wilson Pickett’s “The Midnight Hour” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” were composed at the Lorraine itself.
Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders of the black community and civil rights struggle stayed there every time he visited Memphis, including that fateful time in 1968.
The Lorraine Motel has been declared a site of historical interest by the Tennessee Historical Commission. In 1984, the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation was founded, and in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum was opened, then renovated in 2014.
Since 1991, the museum has hosted the annual Freedom Awards each October, honoring individuals who have had the greatest impact in the battle for rights – both human and civil – in the world.

Martin Luther King, born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929, was an African American Protestant pastor and leader of the Civil Rights movement. He always fought on the front lines, preaching nonviolent resistance, which led him to receive several death threats. After JFK’s assassination on November 22, 1963, Dr. King told his wife that the same thing would happen to him.
On February 11, 1968, King went to Memphis to support African American healthcare workers who organized a strike protesting the poor conditions under which they were forced to work. He then returned there on April 3, for a meeting at Mason Temple, where he delivered the short, unexpected “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, which you can listen to here. The next day he stayed in Memphis for another meeting and, as he did every time he went to the Blues City, he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, in room 306, renamed the “King Abernathy Suite” for the many times he and Reverend Ralph Abernathy, another activist leader in the Civil Rights movement, had stayed there. And to think that this time, he was initially assigned room 202 because 306 was occupied….
Martin Luther King’s last words were to his friend and musician Ben Branch, whom he asked not to forget to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” during the performance he would have had that very evening. Soon after, he looked out from the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel and at 6:01 p.m. a .30-caliber bullet, fired from a shotgun, struck him in the cheek.
The funeral was held on April 9 and his epitaph reads, “Free at last.”

Once past the ticket office, you immediately embark on the telling of the story of African Americans in the United States, starting from its origins, and their struggle to gain civil rights. Like all American museums, it has the merit of letting you feel the history as if you were living it firsthand. I myself felt sadness, anger, frustration as the history and injustices perpetrated for decades unfolded before my eyes. But I also exulted and felt pride at the stories of all those brave people who did not just take it, raised their voices and rebelled, to win the dignity and rights that should be due to everyone, without inequality.

“This is the story of a people, of hopes and dreams, of challenge and change. It is an american story.
This story and struggle that started many centuries ago continues today – with you.”

So you can read on a panel at the beginning of the visit, and it is the most representative description of the entire tour: a story of struggles, dreams, hopes, wounds and changes that began centuries ago but continues today-with all of us.

The visit begins with the gallery entitled “A culture of resistance”, in which the story is told of the Atlantic slave trade, their arrival in the United States, as early as 1619, and how they were valued and sold just as if they were mere commodities and not human beings. Families divided, men beaten, women raped: a horror story that was a reality to so many.
You walk over maps of North and South America, Africa and Europe, where the Atlantic trafficking routes are charted, complete with statistics and the impact on the world of this market.

After the gallery begins the whole part that tells the story of segregation and the struggles for freedom and equality: “Combating Jim Crow, 1896-1954.”

A much lesser-known story is also mentioned here: that of the Buffalo Soldiers. These were African Americans who chose to go and serve in the U.S. Army, enlisting for a meagre $13 a month, higher than they would have received in any other job anyway, and to find more dignity in living conditions than the civilian life would have offered them.
In 1866, Congress established six all-black regiments to help rebuild the country after the Civil War and to fight into the Plains War: to make room for settlers migrating westward, including blacks, the federal government took land from the Cheyenne-Arrapaho, Iowa, Creek, Kiowa, Kickapoo and other tribes. It was from one of these regiments, the 10th Cavalry, that the nickname Buffalo Soldiers was born. The Indians in the planes fighting these soldiers referred to the black cavalry troops as “buffalo soldiers” because of their dark, curly hair that resembled the coat of a buffalo and because of their fierce fighting nature. The nickname soon became synonymous with all African American regiments formed in 1866. As one black man wrote in 1894, “…the whole Indian Territory will be swallowed up by the white man. Many …black men, are helping them swallow it up.”

A curiosity: the Buffalo Soldiers were also the first janitors of National Parks. Between 1891 and 1913, the U.S. Army was the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Soldiers were stationed at the Garrison in San Francisco during the winter months and then served in the Sierra during the summer months. In 1903, Captain Charles Young led a company of Buffalo Soldiers into Sequoia and General Grant National Parks (now Sequoia and King’s Canyon). Young and his troops were able to complete more infrastructure improvements than in the previous three years.

The tour continues with the story of the birth of Blues music – the music born in the Deep South out of slave rage – Jazz and Rock’n’Roll, Jim Crow laws, and the years of segregation. Through period documents and stories, what life was like for the black community at the time is told and how they still managed, despite segregation, to emerge in all fields: religion, education, the press, the arts and entertainment.

But who was Jim Crow and what did he do?
He was a theatrical character, invented and played by Thomas D. Rice, one of the most famous entertainers and minstrels of his time (1840s and 1850s). Jim Crow was a stereotypical portrayal of African Americans and their culture: Rice painted his face black, imitated a Southern accent, and sang and danced imitating the motions of slaves, wearing a battered hat, torn pants, and worn-out clothes. No one knows the story behind Rice’s idea, but the most likely is that he had been observing the movements and speech patterns of black people for years, having grown up in a Manhattan neighborhood where integration was ahead of the rest of America. While on a tour of the Southern states, seeing slaves dancing and singing, he had the idea to bring Jim Crow to life.
In time, after Rice’s death, the name Jim Crow began to be used derogatorily for black people.

Also very intense is the “Separate is Not Equal” room, the exhibit in a replica of a courtroom illustrating the legal battle to eliminate segregation from schools, and the historic victory of Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, when the Supreme Court declared segregation in schools unconstitutional.

You will then find a reconstruction of Rosa Parks’ bus, where you can climb aboard to see a bronze statue of her, sitting in her seat, and listening to the driver yell at her. Then there are reenactments of 1960s student sit-ins, which peacefully opposed segregation by choosing nonviolent action.
Most striking is the “We are Prepared to Die” portion, which recounts the 1961 Freedom Rides when pacifist activists organized to protest the segregation of the interstate bus system in the South. The reconstruction of the bus ravaged by flames recounts the attack in Anniston, Alabama, on Mother’s Day, when the bus carrying Freedom Riders was violently attacked by a group of white men commanded by a KKK member. And it is just one of many examples of the violent retaliation the Freedom Riders encountered.

Concluding the tour is the section recounting Martin Luther King’s final hours, showing Room 306, perfectly preserved as it was when he was a guest and accounts and testimonies of his final days.

I’ve always believed in the power of learning history to change the future, so I think it’s critical to visit real places where real people experienced this on their skin, to create empathy and greater understanding. This is why the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis should be visited at least once in a lifetime: memory is our most valuable teacher, and one can only be inspired by the stories of so many brave men and women who fought for a just cause, to get what they should always be entitled to.

Closed on Tuesdays and open all other days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets are $20 per person, free under 4 and reduced to $18 for those over 65 and $17 between 5 and 17. Online ticket reservation is recommended.
The visit takes about 1 and 1/2 hours (but as I always say, it depends on the time you spend observing/understanding/studying).

Thanks to the National Civil Rights Museum and Visit Memphis, for being extremely supportive of this visit.

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