The National Civil Rights Museum, From Shrine to Showcase

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



Supporters rally outside the Lorraine Motel shortly after King’s death.

Photograph courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

“We have a site that no one can replicate.
 We are the site where history actually occurred.”

These are the words of Beverly Robertson, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, and the “history” she speaks of was the death of an icon.

When Dr. Martin Luther King was shot at the Lorraine Motel in 1968, no one could see beyond the tragedy playing out on every TV in the nation. No one imagined that in 1991 a museum would stand on that ground, drawing visitors and media from across the globe. No one really knew that King’s dream would live on, with all the haters and naysayers and those ready to kill the dreamers. But it does live on, sparking change and hope and commitment to his ideals.

As evidence of that commitment, the National Civil Rights Museum celebrates a metamorphosis next month as it opens a $28 million renovation exploring the ultimately hopeful story of the civil rights movement. It tells of the slave trade in Africa, tragedies and triumphs in America, and efforts in other countries that the movement has inspired. Always a fine museum, this transformation takes the NCRM to the next level, delving deeper into history and with a broader focus, with stories of courage never told before.

In this issue we not only share with readers what they can expect to see at this expanded landmark. We also profile some winners of the NCRM’s Freedom Awards, including Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela, as well as local pioneers of the civil rights movement who dared to make Memphis a better place for its disenfranchised citizens.

A museum may be built with bricks and mortar, but the messages it delivers — and the thoughts it inspires — are enough to change the world, one visitor at a time. As King said, “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

 

On July 4, 1991, a throng of thousands stood in 90-degree heat to witness a resurrection. The Lorraine Motel, largely abandoned in the decades after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, was reborn as a museum that would draw millions through its doors. On that bright morning 23 years ago, the late Rosa Parks cut a red, white, and blue ribbon to dedicate the National Civil Rights Museum. Addressing the crowd, Parks — a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who became known as “the first lady of civil rights” in 1955 because she refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man — said that after King’s death she couldn’t imagine coming to this place of pain, shame, and sorrow. “But today,” she declared, “I’m very happy and proud to be here. . . . It’s truly a great tribute to Dr. King and a great accomplishment of Memphis, Tennessee.”

The events leading up to this accomplishment involved blacks and whites, tension and teamwork, sacrifice and frustration, but ultimately shaped a landmark that has become a prominent tourist attraction and one of the most widely known museums of its kind in the world.

Decades before its present incarnation, this site on Mulberry Street in downtown Memphis served the public as a hotel. Built in 1925, it was originally named the Windsor Hotel, and later The Marquette, until its purchase in 1945 by African-American businessman Walter Bailey. He renamed it for his wife, Loree, and after the song made popular by Nat King Cole titled “Sweet Lorraine.” The building included a cafe and living quarters for the Baileys, who also added a 16-room motel structure in 1955. In the Lorraine’s early years, such celebrities as Louis Armstrong and  Sarah Vaughan stayed here while performing in Memphis, and during the late 1950s and early ’60s, the Lorraine attracted songwriters and performers with Stax Records Company — from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding and The Staple Singers.

Another regular guest was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He and his supporters were staying at the Lorraine in 1968 during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. His assassination there on April 4th — by a gunshot fired from a nearby rooming house as he stood on the balcony outside Room 306 — turned the eyes of the world on this modest motel and on the tragedy that shook the nation.

After King was felled, the motel languished. Within a short time its only neighbors were shotgun houses, an abandoned lounge, and a rundown warehouse. Aside from a few permanent tenants, its main clientele were prostitutes.

Yet visitors still sought out the site where the death of a legend sparked another American revolution. They’d gaze up at the balcony outside Room 306, where around its door the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — which King helped found in 1957 and was presiding over at his death — installed a plaque and a glass enclosure. Inside the room visitors could see a shrine, heart-wrenching in its spareness. It included the sheet that was placed over King after the shooting, dishes of his last meal of catfish, and Ernest Withers’ photographs of the civil rights leader in Memphis. It also held tokens of Bailey’s own personal tragedy: His wife had suffered a brain hemorrhage the day King was shot, and she died the day King was buried. Displayed next to the sheet were Loree’s high-heeled shoes and books from her library. In a slot near the shrine, visitors could drop spare change or dollar bills — a sad commentary on King’s life and death.

But realizing the Lorraine’s place in history and its symbolism, not just for black Americans but for all who cherished King’s ideals, a handful of Memphians set out to save it from neglect and indifference. Bailey sought help from the late Chuck Scruggs, program director of the local radio station WDIA. In 1982, other prominent locals stepped forward to rescue the motel from foreclosure by setting up the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation. A vital player in fundraising and leadership was D’Army Bailey (no relation to the Bailey who owned the hotel), an attorney and activist who helped the Foundation raise $144,000 to purchase the property at a public auction. Another major player was Tri-State Bank, which loaned the foundation $50,000.

Over the next few years, the concept for a museum gradually developed. Such business titans as J.R. “Pitt” Hyde of AutoZone, whose financial backing and presence on the board were invaluable, helped move the idea forward. Then-city and county mayors — Dick Hackett and Bill Morris — also supported the project and were instrumental in calling for consultant bids on the museum’s design and construction. Using a report by former Smithsonian Institution curator Benjamin Lawless, the Foundation moved ahead to create the $8.8 million facility.

The project was hardly an easy sell at the city, county, or state levels. But with pressure from then-Governor Ned McWherter and with key legislators, including Senator John Ford and Representative Roscoe Dixon, pushing relentlessly to gain votes for the bill, it ultimately won state funds. With these approved, the city and county committed to their shares, and ground broke on the project in 1987.

 

 

 

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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