Thanks to friend Meg for her suggestion to write this post. Meg is one of about a dozen of us UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE HEALTH SCIENCE CENTER folks who toured the world-renown, one-of-a-kind museum, THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM. What follows is a brief sketch of our experience. For readers in far-away places who may not be familiar with Memphis, Tennessee history, we are the place in which the gifted and unrelenting leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought bravely, risking his life time after time to gain equal rights under the law for all races, was assassinated. In about 1968, Martin led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. He won that fight when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law an assurance that no potential voter could be hindered from registering. This was a breakthrough, long-overdue, for Blacks who indeed registered and voted out of office White oppressor officials of Selma, and against Alabama Governor George Wallace, who maintained that the status quo was the way folks preferred things to be. Martin fought further for the dignity of being human and the equality of all people under the Constitution of the United States. Sadly, his work was divisive, disruptive; James Earl Ray assassinated Martin in Memphis April 4, 1968. Martin stepped out onto the balcony of the downtown Lorraine Motel and took a bullet that detonated inside him. Martin and entourage at the Lorraine were lodging at Mulberry and Huling Streets, perhaps the only hotel admitting Blacks at that time. The Lorraine is now the site of the world-renown museum, having received millions of dollars from local corporations, after languishing for many years.
Our tour guide was knowledgeable and exuberant. He was an older African American whose passionate storytelling pulled us into the fray, starting with life-size models of chained slaves brought to the Americas to increase wealth of plantation owners and continuing to the centuries-later burned-out Greyhound Freedom Riders bus. After touring the room with exhibits about the Civil Rights Movement gaining footing, a footing that was a nonviolent strategy rooted in Mahatma Gandhi’s success in gaining India’s independence from England, we visitors had our attention drawn to Malcolm X, a leader planting the seed of Black entrepreneurial necessity, turning from White institutions, a “Black Power” strategy that did not embrace nonviolence.
The walls of the museum presented us with the rise of and demand for Black arts and literature, termed “Black Is Beautiful.” This visual art was so engaging that it was easy for me to fall behind the tour group. Thus I had both a group and a single experience. The advantages of group touring are obvious: one gains so many details from the storyteller and energy for extensive exhibits requiring hours. Going singly would have the advantage of focusing on a particular slice of the history of African-Americans, from the beginning of slavery in 1691 through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to the present.