The National Civil Rights Museum: A Movement That Moves You
I made my second trip to the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) last week.
It had only been six months since my first visit, so I planned to skirt the clumps of field-trippers, families and individuals plodding from exhibit to exhibit, and skip to anything I’d overlooked.
I stepped into the first exhibit hall and started my audio tour just as I had six months ago. I scanned and found those things I’d overlooked. But I also found things I’d already seen and heard, and found that I wanted to see and hear them again. I slowed to keep step with the first-timers, tip-toeing between exhibits, as if paying respect to the cause. I was surprised to feel just as affected, and at times, just as incensed, as I felt during my first visit.
I guess, for me, there’s no rushing this museum.
In my defense, there is much to see here: footage of the Birmingham clash between civil rights marchers and “Bull” Connor’s forces (projected in giant, violent detail); a view into Dr. King’s room (306) at the former Lorraine Motel and of the balcony where he was fatally shot; the reconstructed boarding-house quarters from which James Earl Ray allegedly fired that shot, along with the associated rifle and bullet.
…and much to hear: Audio tracks loop around certain exhibits so you absorb the insults jabbed at sitters-in, and eavesdrop on the phone call between JFK and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett surrounding the desegregation of Ole Miss in 1962.
Through other vignettes, there’s also much to feel: When you cross the representation of Selma, Alabama’s Pettus Bridge, try to imagine that a wall of troopers armed with tear gas and clubs awaits you on the other side.
Then view the photo taken four months later of LBJ signing into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And so the museum chronicles the entanglement of sacrifice and progress – never sugar-coating the struggle, but acknowledging its successes, and refusing to let you go home without hope. The closing exhibit, in fact, honors recipients of the museum’s annual Freedom Awards: individuals who champion civil rights (in so many iterations) across the world today.
For me, hope was gathering outside the museum the morning of April 4, 2012, 44 years to the day of Dr. King’s assassination. Those of us gathered – all races; all ages; all present to listen, learn or reflect – stood facing, together, room 306, the balcony where MLK last stood, and the wreath that has been maintained there since his death.
Reverend Jesse Jackson was in the crowd that morning. That evening, he laid a new wreath. Annually on April 4, the museum hosts commemorative events like this – last week’s programming included a screening of the documentary Citizen King and a talk by Rabbi Ben Kamin on his new book Room 306: The National Story of the Lorraine Motel.
For now, add these NCRM events to your calendar:
- Free Lunch & Learns on April 18 (Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin) and May 16 (I AM A MAN). Bring your own lunch to enjoy during each film; a hosted discussion will follow. Lunch & Learns run 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m.
- Free First Thursdays Film Series: Grab a seat in the museum auditorium by 6 p.m. to view Dutchman (May 3), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (June 7) and Carwash (July 5). The films echo the themes of the museum’s temporary exhibit For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, organized in partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and on view at the NCRM through Aug. 20.
p.s. The NCRM offers free admission on Mondays from 3 p.m. until closing for Tennessee residents with state-issued identification (as long as it isn’t a holiday or special event date).
While you’re in the neighborhood: Less than one mile from the NCRM is Robert Church Park, home to the Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival. Now in its 26th year, the festival illuminates “the arts, history, culture, and diversity of the African Diaspora” – specifically, by hosting an international diversity parade (April 20), a blues showcase (April 21), International African American Music Day featuring jazz, gospel, reggae and spoken word performances (April 22), and a marketplace with food and other vendors throughout the weekend. Find all the details here.
What’s your most moving memory of visiting the NCRM?