The National Civil Rights Museum, From Shrine to Showcase

How civil rights supporters turned tragic ground into a world-class museum.



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A wreath graces the balcony where King fell.  -photograph by Larry Kuzniewski

The museum, showcasing the first comprehensive archive of civil rights history in the country, officially opened on September 28, 1991. A protester named Jacqueline Smith had been living at the Lorraine for years, giving tours of Walter Bailey’s humble shrine to King. Though she’d been forcibly removed in 1988, she set up camp outside on Mulberry Street, and told anyone who’d listen that funds raised for a tourist attraction should go directly toward public housing and other necessities for the poor. Smith used opening-day festivities to ramp up her protest, blasting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from a portable cassette player. This didn’t stop some 800 visitors from pouring through the museum to view interpretive exhibits of such pivotal civil rights milestones as student sit-ins, court struggles and victories, the March On Washington, and Memphis’ own sanitation workers’ strike, to name just a few.

Serving as the museum’s executive director in its early years was Juanita Moore, who had helped develop and curate historical museums in Ohio. After her departure in 1996, the board hired Beverly Robertson, a marketing professional from Holiday Inns Worldwide.

Robertson, whose title was changed to president in 2006, has led the National Civil Rights Museum to a level of prestige barely imagined in the landmark’s formative era. Early in her tenure, the museum acquired several adjacent properties, including the rooming house where James Earl Ray stayed in 1968. It also became custodian of police and evidence files associated with the manhunt, indictment, and confession of Ray. This transfer made the museum the first of its kind to receive into its holdings evidence material and court documents connected with a criminal case.

The acquisition of the properties and files led to a 12,800-square-foot museum expansion, which opened in 2002, titled “The Legacy.” With the rooming house now part of the museum, the expansion project included a section titled “Lingering Questions,” which in fact viewers have often asked: Was James Earl Ray the killer? Did he have help? “The Legacy” also explores the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, how it transformed Memphis and other cities, and how it became a prototype for human rights throughout the world.

In November 2012, the museum announced it would close its main building for a year as plans got under way for an unprecedented $28 million makeover. (See story on page 42.) “The Legacy” building remained open, and, for the first time, the balcony outside Room 306 became accessible to visitors. Robertson has called the balcony “the most significant and most important artifact” of the museum, one that triggers chill bumps for those who remember the era — and those who don’t. Visitors climb a stairwell on the south end, walk to the spot where King stood, and can see through the window into King’s room. As they descend the staircase, they hear a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing one of King’s favorite songs, “Precious Lord.”

Robertson’s commitment to enhancing the museum experience for guests hasn’t gone unnoticed by national media. Under her guidance, the museum has been named “one of the top 10 American treasures” and “the third most iconic site in the nation” by USA Today. It has been covered by the History Channel, CNN, and HBO, and the documentary The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 received an Oscar nomination in 2009. Robertson also inspired the creation of Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game, and in cooperation with the NBA, she established the Memphis Grizzlies Martin Luther King Jr. Day Game in 2003. She traveled to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela and invite him to Memphis to receive the 2000 Freedom Award. She’s credited by board members for helping the museum achieve national stature, ensuring its strong financial standing, and attaining its accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums — a standing earned by only 5 percent of museums. She has been featured in The New York Times, Ebony, Black Enterprise, and Redbook.

At the end of June, the museum will start a new chapter of history without Robertson, who earlier this year announced her retirement. “To everything there is a season . . . .” she says. “I have had my season. To be able to turn over an institution that’s in great shape, to lift it up and take it to the next level — that’s what I tried to do. It has been a privilege and a special joy.” The grand opening of the comprehensively updated facility, on the weekend of April 4th, “will be one of the pinnacles of the museum’s history,” Robertson concludes. “And I see great opportunities for the future.” 

 

Background for this article came in part from NCRM literature and from “The Crucible,” an article that appeared in the April 2008 issue of Memphis.

 

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