Celebrating the life of Dr. King
After taking my mom and daughter Madison to Slave Haven in Memphis, TN; which was a stop on the Underground Railroad that told the story of Jacob Burkle, who helped slaves escape to freedom. Our next adventure on my daughters “to do” list was the National Civil Rights Museum. The National Civil Rights Museum chronicles the Civil Rights Movement from slavery to the present-day human rights movements. If you are visiting Memphis do not leave without exploring the National Civil Rights Museum, located adjacent to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.
When you arrive
The moment we arrived at the museum it was as if we walked backed into 1967. The front of the building is still frozen in time; complete with a wreath on the balcony of Room 306 and replicas of the cars parked in the motel’s parking lot the day King was assassinated. Dr. King was in Memphis to give his support to the striking Memphis sanitation workers, and delivered one of his most memorable speeches the night before he was assassinated entitled; “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
What to expect
The National Civil Rights Museum immediately touched my daughter with its cultural and historical significance to African-American culture. The museum tells the story of the African-American’s struggle for independence and equality, dating from the arrival of the first Africans to the British colonies in 1619; to King’s assassination in April of 1968.
As we walked through the museum we felt a sense of this country’s tumultuous past regarding its treatment of African-Americans. I have lived in Memphis my entire adult life and I have visited the museum numerous times, but this was my Madison’s first time. She started her journey trying to understand the civil rights movement, by learning about slavery and the abolitionists who tried to help the slaves. After learning about slavery and the abolitionists movement, we began retracing the early 20th century; learning about Jim Crow laws, which were laws where state and local police enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States.
A 10-year old’s perspective
My daughter is only 10 and she had such a hard time understanding why we, black people; were mistreated and hated so much. I really didn’t have an answer for her because I am still unsure myself. Her questions only increased as we moved into the mid-20th century; representations of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, and protests against racial segregation. As you walk through time with the sounds of protest songs and demonstration speeches playing in the background; it suddenly feels surreal. We live such a privileged life; we can’t even imagine what our ancestors had to go through so we could have the life we currently have.
Finally, we made our way to where Dr. King was assassinated. His suitcase still on a bureau, the table set as though room service had just dropped off coffee; as he prepared for his speech the following day. The room is literally frozen in time as it was on April 4, 1968. Madison was so overwhelmed by being just steps away from where King’s life was taken that she burst into tears. We talked about how young he was, and what he might have accomplished had he lived.
The rooming house across the street where James Earl Ray rented a room, is now a museum as well. That was next on our journey. Madison learned about Dr. King’s murderer, James Earl Ray; who rented a room in a guesthouse and shot Dr. King from a window facing the Lorraine Motel. There is still great debate on whether he actually killed Dr. King, or if he was framed by the government.
More questions than answers
As we left the museum my daughter had more questions than I had answers. I want Madison to understand how far we have come, but how far we still have to go; especially in the current racial climate, we are living in today. It’s so easy to take for granted what our ancestors endured so that we might have the freedoms we currently have, but I want her to know those freedoms are not to be taken lightly because so many died just for her.
Whether or not you are familiar with the history of the civil rights movement, the museum is a powerful testament to the sacrifices that ordinary people made in the name of freedom.
Have you visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis? Have you really explained to your children what the movement meant to our generation?