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National Civil Rights Museum Pays Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. - 2004-01-15

The landmarks in Martin Luther King's life spanned several American cities: Montgomery, Alabama, where he led his early protest demonstration... Atlanta, Georgia, where he built his reputation as a minister… Washington, D.C., where he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech… and finally, Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. That might seem like a historic turning point the people of Memphis would want to put behind them. But instead they've established the National Civil Rights Museum on the site where Dr. King was shot.

Martin Luther King's legacy in Memphis began to take shape even before his death. He came to the city in April of 1968 to rally striking sanitation workers, and gave one of his most famous speeches there. Addressing a cheering crowd, he brushed off rumors that his life was in danger.

"I don't know what will happen now," Rev. King said. "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now. Because I've been to the mountain top, and I don't mind."

The next day, Martin Luther King was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, then one of the few black-owned motels in the American South. James Earl Ray later pled guilty to the killing. After the motel went bankrupt, the building was bought by a group of Memphis citizens. Gwen Harmon, the public relations director for the Civil Rights Museum, says they wanted to preserve a landmark, while creating something new.

"The director of the Smithsonian who came down and gave us the proposal for construction and renovation suggested that not an outside brick be changed - keep it as it is. And that's what we did. So the front looks exactly like the Lorraine Motel, and then inside all the motel space has been retrofitted for museum space," Ms. Harmon explains.

The museum chronicles the African-American struggle for freedom and equality from the 1600s up to the present. But the exhibits focus on the events of the 1950s and 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement reached its climax.

"We're now in 1955, and you are in Montgomery, Alabama," Ms. Harmon says.

That was the year Montgomery's African Americans staged a boycott to protest having to sit in the back of city buses, while white passengers sat in the front. Museum visitors can board a bus like those southern blacks rode then… and hear what they might have heard from the bus driver.

"I need that seat now, please move back… If you don't move out of that seat, I'll have you arrested… Get up from there!" says a recording of a driver.

"And you should see the reaction of the students as I give them the rules," says Ms. Harmon. "They link arms as black and white together. They're going to sit in the front of the bus. They're not going to be moved. They really get into the whole role play of that."

It was during the Montgomery bus boycott that Martin Luther King, Jr. first rose to prominence. Museum visitors move on from the 1955 exhibit to see other milestones in the movement he helped inspire and lead.

"We're now in 1963 and you are in Birmingham, Alabama. And you can hear the fire cannons, the water cannons, the sirens," says Ms. Harmon. "You can see the actual footage of the protestors and the marchers having the water hoses being turned on them, the police dogs attacking them."

The Birmingham exhibit includes a replica of the jail cell where Dr. King wrote a famous statement of his beliefs, called "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

"You can actually see how the jail was done, the design of it," explains Ms. Harmon. "On the bars we have the actual telephone transcript between Dr. King and Mrs. King, a phone call that was allowed only after Mrs. King called Washington, and talked to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, because her phone calls were not being allowed in."

Visitors pass by other exhibits recalling the achievements of Dr. King's last years and the growing controversy he faced. Finally, the timeline leads to room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.

"This room has been reconstructed as it was 35 years ago. Everything is the same - the coffee service, the covers pulled back, the newspaper across the bed, the ashtray with the ashes and the cigarette butts," Ms. Harmon says. "And when you step out onto the balcony, you can see the wreath that's positioned there. That is where he was standing when the shot rang out. For so many years this was the end of the experience, so you can imagine it was very emotional. And people kept asking what happened next? And that's why we opened the expansion to talk about what did happen next."

The Civil Rights Museum has now expanded to the rooming house across the street, where James Earl Ray was staying at the time of the assassination. Exhibits there explore controversies over Ray's conviction for the crime, and the ongoing impact of Martin Luther King's civil rights crusade. Museum official Gwen Harmon says that crusade has had a profound effect on Memphis.

"At the time of King being here in 1968, the city of Memphis was pretty much controlled by Caucasian men," she explains. "If you come back to Memphis now we have two African American mayors, we have majority African American city council members and county commissioners. We have majority school board members. So the legacy King left was that of progress, of change, and that struggle does come with change."

The National Civil Rights Museum now draws some 150,000 visitors each year, including some who took part in the historic events it commemorates. Carl Purcell is a travel journalist and photographer who was present in Washington, D.C. when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream speech." Mr. Purcell was surprised to find that he's now part of an exhibit. A photograph in which he appeared has been transformed into a sculpture of his likeness. He says he's honored to have become a part of history.

"I think the civil rights movement was something that was long overdue and that it has changed America in a tremendously positive way," he says. "Now it's absolutely unacceptable from the standpoint of polite society to have the kind of prejudice that existed because America was brave enough to stand up and say, 'This has to stop.'"

Carl Purcell says he believes the Civil Rights Museum has done an impressive job of showing how that change took place. Those who participated in the movement can relive part of their personal history at the museum, while many more can journey back into that history, thanks to the documents, tapes and pictures the era left behind.