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The blues on Beale Street … barbecue at the Rendezvous … ducks on parade at the Peabody Hotel. These iconic Memphis experiences tell the story of a Southern city steeped in tradition and history. But do not leave Memphis without exploring the National Civil Rights Museum, located adjacent to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.
The moment you arrive at the museum the façade of the hotel greets you, frozen in time, complete with a wreath on the balcony of Room 306 and replicas of the vehicles parked in the motel parking lot that fateful day. King was in Memphis to support the striking Memphis Sanitation Workers and delivered one of his most memorable speeches the night before he was assassinated, entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In an eerie case of foreshadowing, King spoke these words that night:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
In the museum, visitors start their journey to understanding the civil rights movement by learning about slavery and abolition movements, then wind their way through history to the early 20th century, learning about Jim Crow laws institutionalizing segregation through dynamic and interactive exhibits. Moving into the mid-20th century, representations of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, and protests against racial segregations bring to life the people intimately involved in the civil rights movement. As you walk through time, the sounds of protest songs and demonstration speeches resonate through the air and suddenly you hear the words of the Mountaintop Speech ringing in your ears. The sense of foreboding is strong, and it’s difficult to make oneself round the corner into a glass hallway between Dr. King’s room at the Lorraine.
His suitcase sits on a bureau, the table set as though room service just dropped off coffee to energize strategists planning to work late into the night on issues related to the Sanitation Workers’ strike. All of the material reminders of his final moments remain as they were on April 4, 1968 and visitors are just steps away from the balcony where King’s life was extinguished.
The museum continues on, taking visitors through the Black Power movement of the 1960s and the Poor People’s Campaign, originally organized by King and carried out after his death by his colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the most prominent civil rights organizations in American history. Finally, visitors step across the street and learn about King’s murderer, James Earl Ray, who rented a room in a guesthouse and shot King from a window facing the Lorraine Motel.
As visitors leave to resume the daily activities of life, a hush follows them as they stroll back to their cars. Pensive faces, rounded shoulders, and bowed heads trickle back to the parking lot, giving one final glance to the motel balcony where King was shot. A last look over the left shoulder at the boarding house where Ray aimed his gun, and a shiver down the spine. The National Civil Rights Museum brings the movement to life for all of its visitors, even as the memory of King’s death and the Black Freedom struggle lingers.
Scholars of the civil rights movement can study the papers of the SCLC, read FBI surveillance reports on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and learn about the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike and the Poor People’s Campaign in The Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century, a module of ProQuest History Vault.
Along with the SCLC, users can also explore the NAACP Papers, and later this month the papers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Librarians: Learn more and sign up for free trials of ProQuest History Vault modules. Plus, learn about complementary resources including Black Abolitionist Papers, Black Studies Center, and Black Historical Newspapers.