40 years ago yesterday — one day before he was shot — Martin Luther King, Jr. predicted, “I may not get there with you, but I know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” The Lorraine Motel where he was killed was rescued as a landmark by a small band of admirers and became the home of The National Civil Rights Museum in 1991.
For a brief moment in 1968, the attention of the nation focused on the tiny Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. It was April 4th, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. There was much turmoil surrounding his appearance in Memphis, but King knew what to expect. In a somewhat prophetic tone the night before, he had proclaimed to a capacity audience at Memphis’ Macon Temple that his time may indeed have been at an end. (Watch the speech below)
Less than 24 hours later, King was dead from an assassin’s bullet.
When King was martyred, America lost its most effective prophet, and oppressed people, both at home and abroad, lost their most articulate spokesman. King possessed a willingness, almost a compulsion, to take moral stands, such as his stand against the Vietnam War, and to speak up for the downtrodden. He did so even in the face of great opposition and threats on his life. His prophetic voice challenged a 20th century America that had become a global power but also one that had sacrificed some of its most treasured values on the altar of institutionalized racism, economic injustice and war.
The after-shock of King’s assassination would plunge the Lorraine Motel, a minority-owned business in the south end of downtown Memphis, into a long, steep decline. By 1982, the motel was a foreclosed property. Fortunately, a group of Memphis citizens grew concerned that the historic Lorraine Motel would be destroyed through continued neglect and indifference. They joined together and formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation to save the Lorraine. The outcome was the opening of the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991, which now adjoins the Lorraine Motel.
Several years ago I toured this fascinating museum. Filled with artifacts and replicas, the museum brings to life the African-American struggle for freedom and should be a required visit for school-aged children and a must-see for anyone with even a passing interest in our nation’s history.
The museum is no small venture. The exhibits cover the struggle for civil rights from 1619 to the present day. Here you can learn about abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and other early beacons for freedom. The Jim Crow or Black Code laws that limited the freedom of black Americans are highlighted. The legendary 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, leads into the struggle that focused on Central High School in Little Rock. Black students simply wanted to attend the same school as whites but were prohibited.
Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, I remember watching on television the beatings and other brutalities that were heaped on black Americans who dared to seek equal treatment. Walking through the museum was a reminder of the ugliness of those years. It was also a reminder of the stark courage of those who dared to stand up for their rights.
There is the Montgomery bus boycott, where Rosa Parks entered history by having the audacity to refuse to sit at the back of the bus. This set off the first of many demonstrations and introduced the nation to the leadership of 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr.
You learn about James Meredith, who in 1961 sought and was denied admission to the University of Mississippi. That same year, seven African-Americans and six whites joined forces on freedom rides to expose the continuing segregation on buses and trains. They vowed to ride a Greyhound bus from Washington, DC, to New Orleans. Although they were beaten and jailed, and thus never made it to their destination, they became a symbol for the continuing struggle for equal rights.
These stories and much more can be found at the National Civil Rights Museum (some of which is available on the museum’s website here), which is currently sponsoring several events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination. However, the most chilling and disturbing part of the museum is preserved across the street from the Lorraine, where the story of King’s assassin is told. You can peer out the window to the second story of the Lorraine and see Room 306, where King stayed. From there, you actually have the same vantage point as the murderer. A wreath now hangs on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Often, there is little one can do to re-live history. The National Civil Rights Museum, however, changes all that. There the dream still lives. As Dr. King proclaimed on the night before he was murdered, “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
No truer words were ever spoken.
Watch King’s final speech below)
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Why We Should Give a Damn: The Struggle to Reignite the Politics of Hope (Sourcebooks) will be out in August 2008. He can be contacted at [email protected] Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.