In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I wanted to share my experience visiting The National Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee last year. I was in Memphis to tour St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and as part of our experience, we were brought to this museum.
St. Jude played its own role in the civil rights movement. Founder Danny Thomas was motivated to create the hospital after hearing of a senseless tragedy: A young boy was hit by a car in Mississippi, and when the driver picked up the boy in order to get him help, he took him to three different hospitals and was turned away from each one because the boy was African American. By the time he arrived at a hospital that would treat him, the boy had already died. Danny Thomas was so heartbroken to hear this story that he vowed to create a hospital where no child would ever be refused for their race, religion, or ability to pay. When St. Jude was opened in 1962, it was groundbreaking in many ways: By admitting patients of all races, they became the first integrated hospital in the region, and were also an inspiration for integration in many Memphis hotels, as anyone working with St. Jude to provide patient housing were not allowed to discriminate. Noted African American architect Paul Revere Williams donated his services in designing the original St. Jude hospital building.
By touring the National Civil Rights Museum, we were able to further explore this history. The museum is housed in The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. The museum begins by exploring the start of slavery in the US and winds through time, taking us through Jim Crow law and onwards to the modern-day civil rights movement.
The museum is hands-on and full of interactive exhibits, such as a replica of the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. As you sit on the bus looking at her statue, an angry recorded voice shouts, “Move to the back”.
I really appreciated how the museum pulled no punches, nor attempted to “Gloss over” the atrocities of racism. As you wind through the museum and watch Dr. King’s historic final speech, you feel a sense of dread knowing what comes next.
There are many differing opinions on whether or not the site of Dr. King’s assassination should be up for public consumption in this way, and it is certainly understandable. As I did my own research for this piece and read more of the origin of how the Lorraine Motel became a museum, I have even more to think about.
One thing I can say is that I, personally, feel it is important that we do not forget the horrific parts of history. I feel there is a tendency for many to think back to all of the inspiring moments of the civil rights movement, while skimming over the fact that Dr. King was brutally murdered for his work and the fact that racism is still a huge problem in the world. As we reflect on the past, we can’t forget what was given up by those who stood their ground for what was right.