5 Star Stories: NCRM brings US civil rights history to life

Updated: Mar. 9, 2021 at 9:55 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel reopened March 1, 2021, after closing its doors to visitors because of COVID-19. For almost 30 years the museum has inspired generations of people around the world with its poignant and personal presentation of civil rights struggles throughout history.

At 450 Mulberry Street in the South Main Historic Arts District in downtown Memphis is one of this country’s premier heritage and cultural museums. As Dr. Noelle Trent, the museum’s director of interpretation, collections and education said, “This place has power for folks.”

Decades before it became the National Civil Rights Museum it was known simply as the Windsor Hotel. That was 1925.

In 1945, when Walter Bailey purchased the property, it was the Marquette Hotel. Bailey renamed it after his wife Loree and a song titled “Sweet Lorraine” and the hotel became one of the few places in the south where Black travelers could stay overnight during the segregated eras leading up to the late 1960s in America. The hotel also had a cafe and living quarters for the Baileys.

The National Civil Rights Museum opened in September of 1991 inside the former Lorraine Motel, just a few years after a group of concerned citizens sounded the alarm in the mid-80′s that the Lorraine Motel was headed for urban renewal annihilation.

“We found the community support to say, ‘You know what, this place has value, we want to keep it sacred.’ Yes what happened here was tragic, but it’s our story and we deserve to have that story told here more than anyplace else,” said Trent.

Most know the story of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination on the 2nd-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel just outside room 306, which is now a time capsule of that day, April 4, 1968.

(Source: National Civil Rights Museum)
(Source: National Civil Rights Museum)

“But there’s something about a building about a space -- to know that you’re walking in the same path as someone where something historic happened, that moves you; it’s almost indescribable. And so historic places have value in that way,” explained Trent.

And while the motel building holds that story, the museum is more than a memorial to King.

“So while we are a place where a horrible murder happened, we are also able to talk about the context of what brought his career and his life journey together,” said Trent. “But there’s also stories of folks on the grassroots level, you know, of what happened, who they represented. So now when people come to visit they expect to see the place where Dr. King was assassinated. What they walk away with it is an understanding of African American history and in the United States and an understanding of the Lorraine Motel’s place in that story.”

The museum is now a complex of historic buildings that hold about 260 artifacts, more than 40 films, oral histories and interactive media, as well as outdoor listening posts which guide guests through five centuries of history, from resistance during slavery, all the way through the events of the late 20th century.

“That inspired people around the world to stand up for equality,” said Trent.

She says what you’ll find at the museum amplifies the experiences of the ordinary person.

“Because it was happening at the grassroots level that really created a sustainable change. You’re going to confront emotions you never knew you had about certain experiences because we don’t shy away from telling the story,” said Trent.

There’s audio, film and television footage to help visitors see what was actually happening. You can also hear King’s voice in the Birmingham jail cell and see the photographs.

“You can make determinations for yourself,” explained Trent. “Our space is very engaging we have so much technology throughout here that you can walk through and just have fun with the technology or if you want to read every single panel that we have, it’ll take you a few hours, but you can do that, as well and I think that that’s what’s important that we serve various different learning styles and modes of engagement.”

Like most other businesses and venues throughout the world, COVID-19 caused disruptions to museum operations. But Trent said it also inspired museum staff to come up with new ways of educating and storytelling.

“We’ve also had the opportunity to reach audiences in ways we never would’ve done before,” she said. “So our digital programming -- we’re getting emails from Australia, Europe Asia, Africa of people saying, ‘Hey, I checked out your program,’ and it shows that the work that we do has a global meaning.”

Trent adds that NCRM also has a lasting impact on visitors days, weeks, months, even years after they visited the museum.

“Something happens in their lives, something in the world occurs and they think back to what they encountered here and it makes them grateful that they understand the context and it makes them reflective,” shared Trent.

She also said the museum is deliberately moving into a place where it is part of the national conversation.

“People are really deferring to us more so for judgment, for support as we navigate these troubling times and I think we’re gonna continue to see that,” said Trent.

If you’d like to visit the museum, due to coronavirus, you’ll need to purchase your tickets online at: https://tickets.civilrightsmuseum.org/.

Social distancing and COVID-19 capacity guidelines are followed and you must wear a mask at all times.

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