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Museum Honors US Civil Rights Leaders

It has been nearly 40 years since the assassination of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior. He was gunned down at a motel in Memphis, in the southern U.S. state of Tennessee. That motel was turned into the National Civil Rights Museum and highlights people who fought for racial equality and justice. VOA's Deborah Block has more.

In 1963 Martin Luther King Junior and other black leaders organized the March on Washington -- a massive protest for civil rights and jobs. King gave a stirring speech about racial equality to a crowd of more than 200,000 supporters.

Less than four years later, a gunman shot and killed King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. About 20 years later the motel became the National Civil Rights Museum. King's hotel room is preserved the way it looked the day he died.

Beverly Robertson, the museum's president, says exhibits chronicle the history of the American civil rights movement. "All the way from when slaves arrived on the shores of America in the early 1600s, up through the Civil War. It talks about discrimination and how African-Americans could not go in the front of the door, they could not sit in the front of the bus, they could not drink out of the same water fountain as others, on through the desegregation of the school system," she explained.

Elaine Turner was active in the civil rights movement in Memphis during the 1960s. She took part in demonstrations and went to places where African-Americans were not allowed. "I sat in [protested] at restaurants, at movie theaters, churches, you name it, whatever was segregated here in Memphis. There were times when I was afraid because there was some threats during the times that we were sitting in."

She says their actions paid off and helped eliminate segregation laws in Memphis. "The hardest battle is not just the legal aspect but it is the changing of hearts,” says Turner. “That is still a work that is in progress."

Robertson thinks the American civil rights movement influenced other international human rights struggles. "There are many similarities between them, whether it was the struggle of the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square or what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa to lose the shackles of apartheid."

One exhibit features Indian spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi who used non-violence to bring about social and political change. Martin Luther King also promoted non-violence to end racial segregation.

"His whole non-violent philosophy came about as a result of a trip to visit Gandhi," explained Robertson.

Each year the museum presents "Freedom Awards." This year's recipients include former U.S. basketball star Magic Johnson, who now helps American low-income urban communities. Another is civil rights historian John Hope Franklin. Also honored is Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"What she has literally done is liberating that nation and bringing about democratic reform so that individuals in that country have an opportunity to work decent jobs, live in decent homes and they can feed their families," Robertson said.

The awards will be handed out in October.