We Shall Overcome: A visit to the National Civil Rights Museum

Two groups of WKU students took a field trip to the National Civil Rights Museum the tumultuous weekend after the 2016 presidential election. This caused students to reflect on the nature of progress, protest and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A version of this story was originally published on wkutalisman.com.


 

At just under 60 degrees, Saturday was an unseasonably warm November day in Memphis, Tennessee. The bright Memphis sun beat down on the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum and site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as nearly fifty WKU students filed out of a red charter bus.

The students who came to visit the museum for a field trip were enrolled in two different classes: philosophy of public space and American studies.

 

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American studies students pose in front of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The field trip was lead by WKU professors Roger Murphy, Tony Harkins and Sandra Hughes.

 

The air in and around the museum was restless. This was the weekend after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in a victory that NPR called a “major upset” and the “capstone of a tumultuous and divisive campaign.”

As in 1968, the museum was a hub for those searching for unity, justice and wisdom in the legacy of King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bowling Green senior Magnolia Gramling noted a spike in attendance at the museum from her own last visit.

“I was moved by how many people were there this time,” Gramling said. “I remember it being very empty the last time I was there, and I think that [spike in attendance] has everything to do with this new focus on the presence of hate in our country, the trouble people are having with it and this need to reflect on the ways people have dealt with this hate and backlash in the past.”

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A wreath hangs on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s approximate location when he was fatally shot by James Early Ray.

King came to Memphis in 1968 in response to the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike, a protest against poor working conditions, low wages and the recent gruesome deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

He had spent the last year criticizing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty for not going far enough and calling for a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” This trip was no different.

“If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed,” King said in his last speech.

Now, the surrounding blocks of the Lorraine Motel are home to barbecue joints, coffee shops, art galleries and even an American Apparel store. The only telltale sign of the area as it was pre-gentrification is the presence of barbed wire fences and crumbling sidewalks several blocks northeast.

And, of course, there’s Jacqueline Smith.

The gentrification of Mulberry Street

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Jacqueline Smith of Memphis, TN stands on the corner of Mulberry and Butler streets. Smith has protested the National Civil Rights Museum there every day for 28 years.

 

Weather-worn books, educational flyers and photocopied newspaper articles littered a tarp-covered table at the corner of Butler and Mulberry streets. A sign affixed to a nearby telephone pole read that Jacqueline Smith had been protesting there for 28 years and 293 days.

A Memphis native, Smith lived in the Lorraine Motel from 1973 to 1988 when she was evicted for the museum’s construction. At the time, the surrounding neighborhood was home to primarily low-income, black families, said WKU political science professor Roger Murphy. Smith was the Lorraine Motel’s last tenant.

“Been a long time, but I still feel the same way,” she said. “All these people around here are thieving.”

Smith had plenty of recommendations for reading materials about gentrification and King’s message, including one of his own books, A Testament of Hope. She encouraged the small but curious crowd to take flyers home, and she told them that the Lorraine “ought to be used for some good” as a home of education and assistance for the poor, rather than a money-making tourist attraction.

Several police officers drove past, and Smith interrupted herself to wave hello.

“Hello, Officer!” she said. “We appreciate you!”

She turned to address the surrounding bystanders.

“They ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” she said. “I’ve been arrested many times … you have to respect the law enforcement. Ain’t no sense being out there acting foolish.”

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Two University of Texas Rio Grande Valley football players converse with Jacqueline Smith of Memphis, TN. Smith said she believes the museum “out to be put to good use” to educate and provide for the poor.

 


 

This is Our America

Recent protests against President-elect Trump have been making headlines in the week since the election — including on WKU’s campus in which a protest outside Pearce-Ford Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 9 resulted in the arrests of five students.

Across the street from the museum, a diverse crowd of people was gathered at Founders Park. Many of them were college students from the University of Memphis, while others were older. Some wore rainbow gay pride flags draped on their backs. Others held signs bearing phrases like “Love will triumph” and “Our bodies. Our choice.”

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Protestors speak out at Founders Park in Memphis, Tennessee next to the Civil Rights Museum. The protest was in response to the recent election of Donald Trump.

One by one, protesters stepped up to speak through a megaphone. One woman introduced herself as a child of Mexican immigrants. She said she’d never held a megaphone and told the crowd not to be afraid to speak out.

Another woman, a freshman at University of Memphis with purple dreadlocks, introduced herself as, “Tamara, a proud millennial.”

“I refuse to be quiet …” she said to enthusiastic applause and drumbeats. “This is our America.”

Protesters across the street joined arm-in-arm and began singing the Beatles’ song “Let It Be” as WKU students entered the museum through an extensive security check.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Owensboro senior Curtis Edge said visiting the museum was a unique experience because it “let you walk through history.”

The museum was organized chronologically, beginning with an exhibit on slavery which featured life-size mannequins of slaves bound by chains and packed into three foot tall slave quarters on the Middle Passage.

Audio of creaking wood, sloshing water, and human wailing completed the unsettling display, causing one museum-goer to turn away, saying, “I can’t even look.”

Edge echoed these sentiments, saying many of the museum’s artifacts surprised him.

“They had an iron collar with bells on it that the slaves wore so that the masters would know where they were,” Edge said. “It was eery.”

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A wall of mugshots lines a wall of the museum’s Freedom Rides exhibit. The Freedom Rides were a series of protests beginning in 1960 in which activists rode interstate buses into the south to protest segregation.

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Owensboro junior Michael Thompson examines 1970s soul records at the Black Power exhibit at the museum. The Black Power Movement was a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement that celebrated black empowerment through activism and cultural celebration.

The next exhibit focused on Jim Crow, the name for the formal set of laws that legalized segregation. It featured a set of Ku Klux Klan robes from the 1950’s hanging from the ceiling, ominously lit by a spotlight.

 

The next featured a reproduction of the Montgomery, Alabama city bus where Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, followed by a wall of mugshots of protesters arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the subsequent Freedom Rides.

The next was a pastel blue display made to look like a ’60s diner, featuring more mannequins of black youth at a sit-in protest. A film tutorial from a workshop about how to conduct non-violent protests was projected on the tiled wall behind them.

The exhibit’s theme was how civil rights groups organized and carried out non-violent demonstrations.The next was about how they were beaten and jailed anyway.

Gramling said that to her, the museum emphasized the necessity for community organization and political action.

“I think [that] flies under the radar because a lot of the most visible points of the movement were the products of such intense organization and community-building experiences that started on the local level,” Gramling said. “That’s the thing that I took away from it the most and the thing I want to continue to preach to people who will listen.”

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A quote from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is on display in the museum. King wrote this letter while detained in a Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963 for his involvement in sit-in protests.

 

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A museum visitor passes by the balcony outside room 206. The wreath marked the approximate location where King stood when he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.

 

I’ve been to the mountaintop

The museum ended at rooms 306 and 307 of the motel — the rooms where King spent his last hours, preserved behind glass as they were in 1968 by the motel’s owner, Walter Bailey.

Signs called for “silence and respect” as lines of visitors filed past the rooms, stopping to gaze out the glass barrier to the balcony where King, Jr. was standing when he was fatally shot by James Earl Ray. The square of concrete where he stood has been replaced, but a red and white wreath marks the approximate spot where he stood.

Just across the street, golden sunlight illuminated the last of the protestors collecting their belongings as the demonstrations wrapped up for the night. To the left of the museum, Smith stood on the corner of Mulberry Street as she has for nearly three decades.

Gramling reflected on what the visit to the museum meant to her in the wake of the recent election and political unrest.

“It was definitely a comfort I will say,” Gramling said. “Although, it’s the site of, some would say, the death of the Civil Rights Movement because of the profound leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, there’s something comforting about knowing that you stand on the shoulders of really amazing and brave people.”

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Museum-goers are able to view the Lorraine from the third floor of the museum’s Legacy Building, a 2014 renovation of the boarding house across the street. Ray fired the fatal shot from a window in a room adjacent to this one, now reconstructed and protected by glass.

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The “I Am a Man” mural by Marcellous Lovelace stands on 14th Street two blocks from the museum. “I am a man” was a prominent civil rights rallying cry used during the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968.

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King’s signature following the closing of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is projected on the wall behind a replica of a jail cell. Audio of King’s reading of the speech played on a loop in the exhibit.

 

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