Civil Rights Museum preserves historic Memphis motel, celebrates black history

Displays in the National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis recreate marches that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. | Photo by Katherine Pullen

By Katherine Pullen

Imagine a world where hate wins, where one must choose friends based on skin color and where a college education is not a right extended equally. No imagining is necessary after visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

The museum is located downtown in the historic Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The museum is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

On April 4, 1968, King, the acknowledged leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was shot while standing on the balcony of the motel. The murder sent shockwaves around the world and plunged the motel into a period of decline and neglect.

In 1982, a group of concerned Memphis citizens formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation and began to fight to perserve the historic site.

Today, the outside of the motel and rooms 306 and 307, where King was staying at the time of his assassination, have been restored almost exactly as they were on that fatal day over 40 years ago. Vintage cars are parked outside the motel and a memorial wreath hangs on the balcony railing in the location where King was shot.

“When you come to this site, you feel as though you are transported back into 1968,” said Gwen Harmon, director of governmental and community relations for the museum.

The National Civil Rights Museum opened in the Lorraine Motel in 1991, perserving in its rooms the history of the civil rights movement and the location of the assassination of one of its prominent leaders.

The museum covers the history of civil rights, including the first slave revolts in 1619, the assassination of King in 1968, the search for his killer and the strides that have been achieved in human rights around the world up to the year 2000.

Over the years, presidents, dignitaries, sports stars, entertainers and prominent world figures have made the pilgrimage to the museum.

“Every day is a special highlight when someone comes in and says, ‘This has changed my life,’” Harmon said. “That’s the kind of experience we live for. That means more to us than any celebrity or dignitary coming through, because that means we’re doing our job and we’re doing it well.”

With about 230,000 visitors each year, the museum must be doing something well. About 14,000 of those visitors have been college students.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at 450 Mulberry St. in Memphis. It is open Sunday from 1–5 p.m. as well as Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 3–9 p.m.

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, the museum is offering a 20 percent discount on admission all year to anyone born in 1991. It is also featuring fine art from the museum’s collection in a special exhibit, “Portrait of a Movement: 20th Anniversary Reflections.” The special exhibit will be on display through March 6.

Admission is $13, and $11 for students with an I.D. From 3–5 p.m. on Mondays, admission is free to Tennessee residents. For more information about the museum, visit www.civilrightsmuseum.org or call 901- 521-9699.

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