you're reading...

Magazine features

A living history of the Civil Rights movement

The balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot dead.

The balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot dead.

Published in the Age on April 1, 2017.

The National Civil Rights Museum’s permanent exhibition ends in what was once room 307 of the Lorraine Motel. Dorothy Cotton of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stayed here on April 3, 1968; Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy shared the room next door. As Mahalia Jackson’s voice fills the corridor, singing Take My Hand, Precious Lord, visitors peer through the glass into room 306, which has been made up to look as it did on King’s last night.

The museum, at the heart of downtown Memphis, recounts a determined and hopeful history: two painful steps forward and one bloody step back, from the days when an able-bodied African man could be purchased for one hundred and thirty gallons of rum to the election of the USA’s first black president.

Two classic cars with long tail fins are parked beneath the balcony where King was gunned down, as if the violent backlash to this progress can be contained in an episode of Happy Days or Mad Men. King is dead, his murderer long gone, but the racism that killed him is alive and flourishing. Green shoots of hatred are growing from roots buried deep in American soil.

On the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, four million people were held in slavery. The exhibition begins by honouring a few that led the way to freedom, among them Frederick Douglass, who taught himself to read, escaped and became an abolitionist leader, Harriet Tubman, who ferried scores of fugitives along the Underground Railroad, and Dred Scott, who sued for his rights and lost, when the Supreme Court infamously declared that the U.S. Constitution did not consider him a person.

The museum contains 260 artifacts, presented alongside video clips, oral histories and photographs, but the most striking exhibits are facsimiles of notable civil rights actions, designed to capture the attention of the 80,000 children that pass through the museum each year on school trips, and invite them to empathise with the men and women who risked their lives to earn the right to vote and be treated as equals.

One room holds a full scale model of a city bus from Montgomery, Alabama, with Rosa Parks seated near the front, ignoring the driver’s threats to call the police if she won’t move back. In another, there’s a recreation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina that was desegregated by four brave students. A firebombed Greyhound bus is a reminder of the dangers faced by Freedom Riders in their efforts to desegregate interstate transport.

The cell where King wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail has been recreated, and the March On Washington, with an artful collage of documentary photographs, placards, statues of marchers and audio clips. “Let freedom reign,” urges King, over the speakers.

A reconstruction of MLK's cell in Birmingham jail.

A reconstruction of MLK’s cell in Birmingham jail.

On the ramp leading to the motel rooms, a panorama of the third march from Selma to Montgomery has been printed. There are videos of the day and statues of state troopers wearing gas masks and carrying clubs. The temptation, as the too short timeline rushes past Black Panther Huey Newton’s leather jacket and black beret and arrives at Barack Obama, is to marvel at how far we’ve come when a film about the march, directed by a black woman, can be celebrated at the Oscars.

That temptation should be resisted. In its opening week, in January 2015, the headline at breitbart.com, then run by Stephen Bannon, who now serves as Donald Trump’s chief strategist, read “As America Tires of Race Hoaxes, ‘Selma’ Disappoints at Box Office” (it eventually made almost $70 million, more than three times its production budget). The article went on to claim that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were shot in “legitimate cases of self-defence”.

When forty-six state bills have been introduced this year making it harder for poor people to vote, civil rights is a living history. When sixteen unarmed black men were killed by police last year (and double that the year before) civil rights is a living history. When Jeff Sessions, deemed too racist by the Senate to become a federal judge, is Attorney General, civil rights is a living history. When more than two million African-Americans have lost the right to vote because of their criminal records, civil rights is a living history.

A reconstruction of the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.

A reconstruction of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.

“The museum is kind of public square,” spokesperson Faith Morris told me. Nine thousand protesters came to express their support for the recent Women’s March on Washington, and around six thousand to stand up for immigrants in response to President Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The building has hosted die-ins, Black Lives Matter panel discussions and temporary exhibitions highlighting continued racial inequality, both economically and under the law.

“What we’re finding, and it’s thanks to social media, with its here’s-what’s-happening-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it, is that people are coming to the museum to understand the true positioning of civil rights. They see that there’s a movement that’s happening now,” said Morris. It was the day after Trump’s first budget proposed eliminating all federal arts and humanities funding, and the museum was busier than ever.