By: Rishab Jain
The National Civil Rights Museum, in Memphis, TN, was established in 1991 at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination. While the site once served as an upscale motel for African-Americans in the segregation era, the Museum today stands as a monument of remembrance to the civil rights leader and the ideology that he stood for. In 2015, it underwent a renovation that added multiple exhibits, including one about the slave trade in the United States from the 1600s to 1861. These exhibits, combined with the brief showcases that the museum hosts about modern day racial issues, elicit a wide variety of perspectives, showing their effect on the afterlives of slavery today.
Though the museum marks the site of Dr. King’s assassination, the contents of it hold much more. With exhibits on Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, and other major players and influences of the American Civil Rights Movement, the NCRM provides visitors with a detailed background of racial discrimination in the United States from before its independence. However, the museum takes the issue a step further, taking on the modern challenges of the Black Lives Matter movement and the unjust treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system. These modern-day implications prove the NCRM is a constantly changing cultural artifact, bound in its display of the subjugated black American experience that spans centuries.
Historical and Cultural Context
The National Civil Rights Museum bases itself primarily on a discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions and influences. The museum also takes this idea a step further in looking at the roots of the fight for equality and the issues that the black community still faces today. Much of the context of the National Civil Rights Museum today is based on not only the afterlives of slavery for black Americans, but also a general theme of social justice and activism. This idea places the Civil Rights Movement within a broader context of democracy and multiculturalism, rather than solely concerning itself with black movements for equality (Autry 68). The main idea seen in the NCRM, as with other museums of black civil rights, is one of “Sankofa,” or a search for one’s cultural roots. The work Sankofa comes from the Ghanaian Twi language, and loosely translates as “to go back and get.” In this case, the word applies to the culture that black Americans are going back to understand (Duffy 15).
The scenes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Memphis, specifically for the 1968 Sanitation Worker’s strike and the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech are memorialized outside of the museum as well. Monuments around Memphis and the Southeastern US mark many sites related to Dr. King, and the play “Mountaintop” which reimagines the night before the assassination, was written by Katori Hall, a Memphis native (Brantley). These authors and artists continue upon the themes central to the afterlives of slavery, as they take the issue of Dr. King’s death and tie it into other cultural artifacts.
The role of the city of Memphis as a backdrop for the National Civil Rights Museum cannot be understated either. Comprised of a majority of African-Americans, Memphis has become one of the many hubs in the Southern United States for black activism and entrepreneurship. This can be traced back to Memphis’s role as a point of action for the Civil Rights Movement, helping to bring more people and jobs into the city. Today, the city struggles with income inequality and poverty, marking the effects of discrimination as well as the economic struggle seen among similar communities across the United States.
Themes and Style
The National Civil Rights Museum takes a very visual, interactive approach when it comes to discussing the afterlives of slavery in the United States. In one specific exhibit, the room is surrounded with statues of slaves being sold or held in ship compartments. These life-size figures invite the viewer to engage with the exhibit, showing the brawn of African slaves cramped into boxes the size of a coffin. Specifically, it humanizes the issue for those who only briefly studied or discussed it. When a statue is erected, slavery is no longer a distant institution: it is brought back to life in front of the viewer’s eyes. This idea continues throughout the museum, with replicas of buses destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan, as well as lunch counters in the gallery that were the site of sit-ins across the country. These tactile and visual aids serve to bring the past back to the viewer, reminding them that the effects of slavery and civil rights have not disappeared. Along with that, the well-kept hotel room of Dr. King often brings visitors to tears, as they witness the true price of racial injustice in the United States (Nance). These elements of the past are brought back to life in the museum, giving visitors a chance to confront the horrors of discrimination and come to terms with the hardships of history.
At the National Civil Rights Museum, the slavery rotunda has statues that portray how slaves were transported across the Atlantic. This gives the viewer the perspective that they, too, are in the moment. Source: National Civil Rights Museum. “Slavery in America 1619–1861.” A Culture of Resistance, 2017, www.civilrightsmuseum.org/a-culture-of-resistance.
Dr. King’s bedroom is kept almost exactly as it was when he left it the night of April 4, 1968. Museum curators and staff keep it separate to ensure that viewers see history in its purest form. On the balcony, a wreath marks where Dr. King died. Source: Blank, Christopher. “Sit Next To Rosa Parks At The National Civil Rights Museum.” Code Switch, NPR, 4 Apr. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/04/04/298332886/sit-next-to-rosa-parks-at-the-national-civil-rights-museum.
This visual element of the NCRM makes it unique in its ability to show how black Americans have been marginalized: by taking elements of the past and bringing them to the modern day, the audience is given a harrowing reminder of how history affects our outlook today. This idea is common among multiple slavery museums: The National Museum of African American History and Culture, located in Washington, DC, also uses a variety of artifacts, including clothing, freedom papers, and identification pins, to bring the issue of slavery back to life.
The museum faced a flurry of criticism when it was created. Many, including activist Jacqueline Smith, felt that a multi-million-dollar shrine to King would not be fitting, and that such a selfless man would want a simpler memorial (Harris). Smith has protested outside the NCRM for over 2 decades, informing visitors about her mission to change the purpose of the Lorraine Motel to serve the community better. However, the National Civil Rights Museum has taken multiple steps to ensure that it serves as a home not only for King’s remembrance, but also as a monument to the black struggle for equality in the United States.
One of Smith’s biggest arguments is that much of the area around the Museum has been heavily gentrified, and the black families who had lived there for generations were forced out due to higher prices. Similarly, the museum has done nothing to specifically combat the systemic racism that still pervades the world around it, as Memphis is one of the US’s most segregated cities and is home to one of the country’s most unequal distributions of wealth. While the museum’s impact on the city itself is very heavily debated, it still holds a significance outside of simply being a historical site, and through its exhibits, give a detailed account of the afterlives of slavery we see today.
Today, the discussion about museums has become more heated than ever. Museum goers carry their cultural identity with them, often causing clashes between what they see and what they feel (Brooms 520). Since race is a cultural element that every person holds, the reactions to museum exhibits spark debate as to whether or not we continue to display the dark past. While society is quick to note the progress made, the work still to be done is often passed over, leaving many still marginalized. The sudden rise in discussion comes at a time of reckoning for the American people: they are slowly beginning to realize that they cannot discuss history without slavery, and that doing so eliminates the narrative of a grand portion of the country today (Berlin 1255). By discussing history from slavery and showing the fight for equal treatment, museums attempt to deemphasize the perceived passiveness of black Americans, instead choosing to focus on the empowerment that they took on (Autry 66). Each of these elements, and their effects on the afterlives of slavery, is seen in the NCRM, making it a key topic for conversation among curators and museumgoers alike.
The National Civil Rights Museum also houses the Legacy Building, a part of the museum dedicated to the backstory of James Earl Ray, King’s assassin. Kenon Walker, a former actor and performer in one of the museum’s exhibits, states, “I call it the ‘CSI Building,’ and quite honestly, you get mixed reactions to it” (Nance). This is seen in who chooses to visit the other side of the museum: younger visitors are more likely to spend lots of time in the Legacy Building, taking in the detailed about the history and theories surrounding Dr. King’s death. Older visitors, on the other hand, are less willing to visit the other side of the museum, as they see it hitting too close to home with respect to King’s assassination. These mixed views show the controversy of the NCRM again, as to whether it serves as a memory of the assassination or whether its exhibits should paint a different story. Much of the controversy around the museum was rooted in its memorial of the shooter and whether James Earl Ray truly deserved to be remembered for what he did. This debate ties into the so-called “power of place” that the NCRM holds, in that they “reside on the fine line between sacred sites of memory and scarred sites of trauma” (Autry 68).
The Legacy building was the most recent addition to the NCRM, and houses much of the information surrounding King’s last days and the search and prosecution of James Earl Ray. Source: National Civil Rights Museum. “The Movement Continues Worldwide Today.” The Legacy Building, 2017, www.civilrightsmuseum.org/legacy-building.
Many of the authors who have written about the subject of black history in museums generally hold advanced degrees in art history and African-American history. Therefore, much of the debate revolves around the historical representation of slavery in museums as opposed to the reaction it receives from the public. However, the conversation continues, among the academic community and the public alike, on how to consider slavery in museums and in the context of everyday life as a whole.
Autry, Robyn. “The Political Economy of Memory: the Challenges of Representing National Conflict at ‘Identity-Driven’ Museums.” Theory and Society, vol. 42, no. 1, 2013, pp. 57–80. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23362894.
Brantley, Ben. “April 3, 1968. Lorraine Motel. Evening.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/10/14/theater/reviews/the-mountaintop-with-samuel-l-jackson-angela-bassett.html.
Brooms, Derrick. “Lest We Forget: Exhibiting (and Remembering) Slavery in African-American Museums.” Journal of African American Studies 15.4 (2011): 508-23. SpringerLink. Web.
Berlin, Ira. “American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice.” The Journal of American History, vol. 90, no. 4, 2004, pp. 1251–1268. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3660347.
Duffy, Terence M. “Museums of ‘human Suffering’ and the Struggle for Human Rights.” Museum International 53.1 (2001): 10-16. Wiley Online Library. Web.
Harris, Hamil R. “A One-Woman Protest at the Lorraine Motel.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 May 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2014/05/16/a-one-woman-protest-at-the-lorraine-motel/?utm_term=.388b206df81d.
Nance, Kevin. “At the Scene of a Tragedy, National Civil Rights Museum Preserves History.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Aug. 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/at-the-scene-of-a-tragedy-national-civil-rights-museum-preserves-history/2011/07/26/gIQAW3NyRJ_story.html?utm_term=.64daf0e639fb.
Copeland, Huey, and Krista Thompson. “Perpetual Returns: New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual.” Representations, vol. 113, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1–15. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2011.113.1.1.
Gallas, Kristin L., and James DeWolf Perry. Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Electronic.
Noel, Josh. “National Civil Rights Museum Gets a Poignant Makeover.” Chicagotribune.com. Chicago Tribune, 09 June 2015. Web.
Woolfork, Lisa. Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. U of Illinois, 2009. Electronic.
Keywords: Civil Rights, African American, Martin Luther King, Assassination, Slavery, Exhibit, Museum, Memphis, Depiction, History, Jacqueline Smith