Facelift planned for Memphis civil rights museum

by Martha Waggoner

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—The sign on the public bus from Montgomery, Ala., invites you to take a seat near the statue of Rosa Parks.

No sooner do you sit on the hard, bench-like seat than a voice barks out orders in a distinctly Southern accent, intensifying with each message:

“Please move to the back of the bus.”

SYMBOL OF RACIAL TENSION—The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 exhibit symbolizes the racial tension that polarized the city which led to riots and the occupation of 4,000 National Guardsmen. The strike became the impetus for Dr. King’s visits to Memphis to organize a nonviolent march as part of the Poor Peoples Campaign.

“I need that seat now. Please move back.”

“If you can sit there in other buses, suppose you get off and in one of them!”

“If you don’t move out of that seat, I’ll have you arrested.”

“Get up from there!”

Then the narrator chimes in, saying: “In 1955 if you had not moved by this point, you would be arrested.” That is what happened to Parks, the Black civil rights pioneer who protested segregation by refusing to give her seat to a White man.

The bus, with its plaster statues of Parks and a White bus driver, is among the most popular exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum, located at the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there April 4, 1968, when he traveled to Memphis to support striking city sanitation workers.

It is easy to understand the popularity of the bus: it is one of the few interactive exhibits at the museum, which opened in September 1991 and will undergo renovation during the next three or so years at an estimated $10-$15 million cost.

Museum leaders “are fond of saying, when we opened, we were using state-of-the-art laser discs,” says Tracy Lauritzen Wright, the museum’s director of administration.

Another somewhat interactive exhibit involves a small room off to the side with two telephones in it. Visitors can hear a conversation between President John F. Kennedy and Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett about James Meredith, the Black student who wanted to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. Kennedy’s frustration grows and grows as Barnett says he will send 280 highway patrol officers to protect Meredith, but they will not be armed.

“Well, what can they do to maintain law and order and prevent the gathering of a mob and, uh, action taken by the mob? What can they do?” Kennedy asks.

Barnett: “Well, they’ll do their best to. They’ll do everything in their power to stop it.”

Many of the museum’s exhibits rely heavily on time lines, newspaper clippings and other reading material. Renovations are barely in the planning stages, but Wright says the museum intends to add technological elements to appeal to younger generations raised on video games and computers. On the other hand, the institution does not want to lose older visitors or overshadow its mission as a history, not a science, museum.

“We want to make it easier for people coming through to understand what are the key message points within each exhibition,” Wright says. “Something we want to do is help our visitors understand the lessons of the movement and find their applications in their life today.”

One possibility would be to allow visitors to search for what happened in their communities during a particular time or action, such as the sit-ins. Most Americans are familiar with the most famous of the early sit-ins, the ones in Greensboro, N.C., but not necessarily those in Nashville, Tenn.,” Wright said.

Or they might redesign the lunch counter that symbolizes the sit-in movement so that visitors can sit on the stools as they read about the movement and watch video of the sit-ins. Right now, the 1960s-era stools are deemed too fragile for sitting, especially in a museum that attracted 230,000 visitors in the fiscal year that ended in June 2009.

The renovation will not change the museum’s size, 25,600 square feet (2,380 square meters) of exhibit space in two buildings, nor will it change such important features as the preservation of room 306. That was King’s motel room just off the balcony, where a slightly colored piece of concrete symbolizes the blood he shed from a sniper’s bullet. Nor will other iconic elements change, including the replica of a Freedom Riders bus, which carried groups of civil rights activists to the South, and the re-creation of the Pettus bridge, where protesters marching for voting rights in Selma, Ala., were beaten by state and local lawmen.

“We were one of the first museums of this kind, dealing with this kind of history as a permanent exhibition,” Wright said. “The objective was to really chronicle the key episodes of the traditionally understood Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s.” The renovation will not make the museum unrecognizable from the original, she said.

“We are putting on a new face and a little bit of new interpretation,” she said. Those include updates, such as the belated 1994 conviction of the man who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, and the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.

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