It was 20 years ago today. Isn’t that how the song goes?
20 years ago today, the National Civil Rights Museum opened. The opening was the culmination of a lot of efforts and a lot of hard work once the museum was a sealed deal that was going to happen.
The Memphis City Council which just a few years earlier had still included some members of the charter city council that took office in 1968 had debated whether the NCRM was something that would present a positive image of the city or something that visitors would even be interested in.
There was a fear by some that the museum would be exclusively about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The truth was that people were already coming to the Lorraine Motel even when it was still an operating motel. If you were anywhere walking near South Main you would probably be stopped by someone in a car looking for directions to the motel. Then, as now, they would stop in the courtyard and look up at the balcony where King fell, usually snap a few pictures, look back at the boarding house and wonder which window the shot came from, and ponder the place and the time.
The museum was never planned to be just about the assassination. It was, from its earliest stages, supposed to put King’s death in context. It was also assembled with the knowledge that many of those who came to the museum would have no memory of the historic movement that preceeded King’s death and continued — radically changed all over again after his death.
As the Lorraine Motel began its conversion to the National Civil Rights Museum, the work on exhibits began. An unidentified family donated a Ku Klux Klan robe.
The museum got a 1955 era Montgomery city bus that was driven to the museum before it underwent its transformation into a simple but very effective exhibit that demonstrated just what the Montgomery bus boycott was about. Sit in a front seat and you hear the driver tell you to get up and go to the back. Remain there and the bus driver’s voice grows louder and more irate. The museum has from time to time had to repair the sculpted likeness of Rosa Parks, a favorite of visitors.
One of my most vivid memories of opening day 20 years ago was Parks taking a seat by the seated figure of herself.
There was another bus prepared in a much different way for inclusion in the museum. An early 1960s era Greyhound bus was purchased and then burned to serve as a reminder of the Freedom Rides. Its charred shell with flamed out windows is a vivid reminder of the high stakes of a movement built on the principle of non violent resistance. One of the visitors on opening day walked up to the bus with his son and said something to the child as he pressed with his hand on the door. He later said he was showing his son how the mob that firebombed the Freedom Riders bus in Anniston, Ala. had tried to keep the riders in the bus while it was on fire. Until then, he said his son really hadn’t been able to understand what he had experienced.
The sculpture that is now in the lobby was lowered in by a crane before the skylight that is now over the monument filled in the opening.
There were some plans that didn’t make it off the drawing board for the museum.
Museum founder D’Army Bailey and Benjamin Lawless, a museum planner and chief of exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution, had wanted to recreate a 1960s bus station lobby that had a huge roped off “whites only” area and a tiny “colored” section that even the smallest group of visitors would find cramped and have to squeeze into.
Such practical demonstrations have a value that was demonstrated years later when Rosa Parks took part in a very early “Internet” chat with a group of grade schoolers at Delano Elementary School in Frayser. The students had some real problems getting their minds around her being arrested because she sat where white people were supposed to sit. This was before Skype, so the “conversation” was questions already submitted with Parks responding with words on a screen. It was a slow process in which the “conversation” moved but the children just couldn’t fathom why she was arrested and the bus driver wasn’t.
Finally, the principal, David Moore, looked at the biracial group of kids and told them that when their school was built, it was built for white children only. So, if they had been students at that time, about half of them would have been barred by law from ever setting foot in the school building.
What followed was a wonderful moment in which the children turned and looked at one another with these priceless expressions on their little faces, as if they had been told some science fiction story was really true. And he didn’t even get into the whole part about soldiers in combat gear or raving crowds of adults screaming at children.
That example from what has now become long ago is one of the reasons the museum is undergoing its first renovation of its exhibits since it opened in 1991. What was cutting edge technology in 1991 needs to be updated to be more interactive — something young hands and minds can use to explain to them a time so different from the one they now live in and how it was changed by non violent resistance that showed American principles and beliefs celebrated on the Fourth of July are not theories nor relics.