A Walk with Heroes

The South: Exhibits of the civil-rights era have opened from Memphis to Birmingham in a region once preoccupied with memorializing the Confederacy.

Cover Story

January 16, 2000|By Kevin Sack | Kevin Sack,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When the notion was broached nearly a decade ago, it seemed tastelessly morbid. A museum of the civil rights movement was to be built at the Lorraine Motel, the motor lodge in Memphis where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in 1968 while standing on the balcony outside Room 307.

But eight years and 928,000 visitors later, the decision seems as visionary as the men and women whose courage and strategic insight are now honored by the museum. Of all this country's monuments and shrines, few hold the visceral power of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn.

As visitors wend their way down a chronological path through the movement, walking past the burned-out hull of a Freedom Riders' bus and tasting the abuse served up to lunch- counter demonstrators, many are moved to tears as they come upon the culmination of their tour and, in the minds of many, of the movement itself.

Preserved behind glass is Room 307, just as King and his lieutenants left it on April 4 after a staff meeting that ended shortly before the assassination at 6 p.m. An unmade bed. A room service tray cluttered with dirty dishes. That day's Memphis Press-Scimitar. A butt-filled ashtray.

Looking out a window, you can trace the path of the bullet from the rooming house across the street to the spot where King fell, now marked by a wreath of red and white carnations. The mournful mood, reflecting the destruction of both a 39-year-old leader and a movement's momentum, is set by a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing "Precious Lord," just as she did at King's funeral.

Thirty-one years after King's death, commemorations of the struggle for civil rights are proliferating across the South, a region once preoccupied with memorializing the Confederacy.

There are now civil rights museums in Memphis and Birmingham, Atlanta and Little Rock, Selma and Savannah, and several are among the premier tourist attractions in their cities. The Mount Zion Albany Civil Rights Museum opened in the fall of 1998 at the old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., a staging ground for that city's demonstrations. Ground was broken in April 1998 at Troy State University in Montgomery, Ala., for a 40,000-square-foot Rosa Parks Library and Museum, scheduled to open in 2000. Money is being raised to build a museum at the former F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C., where four students began the sit-in movement in 1960, a protest against segregation at lunch counters and in other public places.

The current building boom has been inspired by the graying of the civil rights generation and a feeling that the heroes of the 1950s and 1960s, both the famous and the foot-soldiers, should be acknowledged in a formal way. In doing so, the museums celebrate the remarkable distance that race relations have progressed in the second half of the 20th century.

In almost every instance, the most compelling displays at the museums -- even more so than the newsreels of memorable marches and speeches -- are the artifacts of segregation, numbing in their matter-of-factness. What stayed with me after a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was a photograph of a laundry truck, emblazoned with an advertisement reading "We Wash for White People Only." Even dirty laundry, the curators point out, was not allowed to mix.

Another impetus in the construction of the museums, civil rights veterans say, has been the ignorance of the movement by today's students, who are often only a generation or two removed from the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington. One of those veterans, Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP and a prominent civil rights historian, has said that not one of the 500 students he surveyed between 1989 and 1993 in classes at five prominent universities could correctly identify George Wallace, the defiantly segregationist former governor of Alabama.

In their educational mission, the museums strive to place the civil rights movement within the mainstream of America's revolutionary tradition. The Memphis exhibition pointedly concludes with a plaque bearing words not of King, but of Thomas Jefferson: "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing. ... It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."

Similarly, several of the museums include replicas of the Birmingham jail cell where King wrote his famous 1963 letter to white ministers, proclaiming that the non-violent protests of the day had brought the country "back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers."

It was in that same letter that King made one of his most prescient predictions. "One day," he wrote, "the South will recognize its real heroes."

National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis

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