Having recently been in Memphis over Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend, I realized once again that few things make you feel connected to history like being near a historic landmark on a significant anniversary. In this case, it’s the thought-provoking National Civil Rights Museum on the birthday of the great icon of the movement.
Ironically, the site is located not at the place of his birth but the place of his assassination. The façade of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered by white supremacist James Earl Ray in May of 1968, is all that remains of the low-rent building. Left just as it was at the time of King’s murder, the façade remains eerily frozen in time: a tacky 60’s turquoise-and-yellow sign stands in the parking lot. Nearby, a wreath marks the spot where King’s life was taken as he relaxed on the balcony outside room 306.
It’s not just the site of his death that draws visitors; the museum complex attached to it is the real attraction. Built in two phases over several years, the sprawling, state-of-the-art space—much of it underneath a hill adjacent to the motel’s dingy façade—features listening posts, artifacts, records, and archival films detailing the civil rights activists’ efforts to win equality for all. Aside from the physical relics, a 12,800 square foot expansion project called “Exploring the Legacy” offers compelling insight into King and the movement he led.
On my first visit to the museum a few years ago, Memphis sweltered under a boiling summer sun and only a handful of visitors were present. This time, as I enjoyed a friend’s wedding weekend on the anniversary of MLK’s birth, the chilly winter day saw hundreds coming to show respect for King and, more importantly, to show their children the museum dedicated to the civil rights struggle. I imagine how strange it must be for a child to learn that, just a few decades ago, a large movement of brave activists had to fight bullets, bombs, and hate to win liberties now taken for granted. The fact that this birthday celebration coincided with the second inaugural of the nation’s first black president only underscored how far the movement has come, though more work remains.
Driving through town I catch a fleeting glimpse of the site. The commotion of my friend’s wedding weekend is temporarily forgotten as the instantly recognizable motel sign catches my eye. I feel a sudden, poignant tug at my emotions as I glance to the Lorraine’s aging façade. There, just outside room 306, a small wreath lies on the cold concrete of a motel balcony, a silent testament to a profound truth: Lives can be taken, but words and ideals that speak to the better angels of our nature can change the world. And that’s worth celebrating.