As we stood in the stairway of the National Civil Rights Museum, just the two of us, completely alone, I told Big Sister “We have a responsibility. You are lucky. You were born to a good family with privileges that some children don’t have. It is highly unlikely that you will be confused of being up to no good or dangerous just because you are walking down the sidewalk. We have a responsibility to speak up when we see injustice. We have a responsibility to speak out against it. Things will never change if we stay silent when others are hurting.”
That was an unplanned moment that will stay in my memory forever. I hope it is one of those moments that will in some shape or fashion stick with Big Sister forever as well. It was completely motivated by one exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum. The one exhibit that brought on more questions from Big Sister. It was the very last exhibit for the day, but it was just as important as every other exhibit we had seen at the Museum. It was the “I AM A CHILD” exhibit that focused on the present child immigration crisis. I read the text from the exhibit to Big Sister and explained to her why there was such an exhibit. Told her the reality of the situation. You see, while it did focus on child immigration it also touched upon several other horrible abuses that too many children face in 2019. Horrible abuses and exploitations that my child thankfully will never personally experience. But it was important for her to see the connection from the exhibits of the past and this exhibit that focuses on the present. This exhibit explained in an indirect way to Big Sister that although the Movement and Dr. King’s words happened in the 1960s (before Mommy and Daddy were born) it is still prevalent today. We still must speak out. We can not be complacent. We still need to adhere to Dr. King’s prophetic words. There is still a lot of work to be done.
The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel was the whole reason why I wanted to visit Memphis. I’ve read nothing but glowing reviews about the museum and decided it was an experience that I wanted my whole family to have as soon as we could possibly have it. A few weeks before we went to Memphis, I touched upon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement with Big Sister and Brother. The movement is rich with so much history that it is impossible to cover all of it. But for Sister and Big Brother, they are still young (7 and 4) and I can cover the heart of it. To read more about our lessons before our trip to Memphis you can read Learning About Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
WE ARRIVED TO THE MUSEUM
I saved the Museum for the last full day of our trip. And we were able to enjoy so many wonderful things around the city that you can read about in 4 Fun Filled Days “Walking in Memphis” with Kids. Finally, we arrived. My heart stopped. I was filled with excitement and dread to visit this historic place. If you do not know, the Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed while participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. It is the spot were he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. It is now a monument in honor of him and the Civil Rights Movement. The face of the motel looks the same but it is also very obvious that it has been turned into a monument. Still, we knew that we were standing in a spot that holds an incredibly important piece of history in America. After visiting the museum, I would daresay that it is an important part of our future too because who knows what future American leader/hero it will motivate.
FEBRUARY IS VERY BUSY
If you want to visit the museum during non busy times, I recommend going some other time than February. Silly me, thought that our little homeschool family would be able to go on vacation in February during the week and avoid any large crowds. I didn’t even think about the fact that schools would be going to the museum for field trips during Black History Month. And there were several schools there. There were some spots of the museum that were really hard to walk through and it was hard to keep an eye on my excited children who wanted to wander from exhibit to exhibit and explore. Despite the crowd there was a feeling of peace and benevolence in the museum. No one was rude or condescending. It’s almost like we were all friends there. We knew we were there to honor a man that preached love and we weren’t going to dishonor him by being anything less than our best. Additionally, the employees of the museum were incredibly friendly and did a wonderful job dealing with the amazing crowd.
SLAVERY IN AMERICA
The museum starts with a powerful exhibit on slavery and the trafficking of Africans to America called A Culture of Resistance. I could have stayed in that exhibit for much longer because it was such a powerful reminder of the awful treatment and how so many were ripped from their homes and expected to be nothing but a worker in grueling situations leaving behind a culture and a way of life.
A SHORT VIDEO
After the exhibit, you are moved into a theater to watch a twelve minute video. It was powerful and chilling. It may have gone over Big Sister’s head a little bit and it definitely went over Brother’s head but it was beautifully made and kept their attention. I wish people could watch this video outside of the museum because it really did a great job explaining the treatment and broken promises that African Americans have been dealt since they have brought to America.
EXHIBITS ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Finally, it was time to see the exhibits of the Civil Rights Movement. While in law school (I no longer practice law), I did a directed research project on the Civil Rights Movement and Constitutional Law. I focused on the south’s resistance and flat out refusal to comply with Supreme Court rulings citing yet again “State Rights.” I discussed the mechanisms the Federal Government had to use to enforce the Supreme Court Rulings. I traveled the south and visited several landmarks of the Civil Rights Museum including churches and scenes of terror. I spoke with several Foot Soldiers during my trip and heard their first person accounts of the movement. I sang “We Shall Overcome” with one of Rosa Parks closest friends while holding hands with colleagues. I am by far not an expert of the movement but I am knowledgable and what I learned during my trip changed me forever. So while walking through the museum, I was flooded with memories of the places I have been. I was excited when I saw pictures of men and women that I had personally met and recounted my stories with Big Sister.
While going through the museum, I had a myriad of emotions. Awe for our history. Grateful for those who fought so bravely for social justice in the past and present. Grief for what we lost. Hope for our future. Sadness for the inequalities still very prevalent in 2019. Excitement for sharing this experience with my family. The exhibits of Rosa Parks, the Aniston Bus Burning, (a bus burned while Freedom Riders sat in the integrated bus in compliance with a new Supreme Court Ruling), Sit ins, Voting Rights, and so much more were not just exhibits. They were art work. Absolutely gorgeous and powerful remembrances of brave men and women that took a stand for what our country should be. When you walk into the bus and see Rosa Parks sitting in her seat and hear the bus driver telling her she must move back, you can’t help but think “did she have any clue the fire she was about to ignite? Did she know she was going to be a household name? Did she know students all over the country for years to come would study her act of civil disobedience? Or was she just simply tired? Tired from a long day at work. Tired of being treat as a second rate citizen.” You can’t help but wonder if she knew at that moment that she was making epic history.
HOW TO PREPARE YOUR CHILDREN FOR THE VISIT
There are so many discussion pieces for your children at each exhibit. But one thing I loved about the museum is that you don’t have to do it blindly. The museum’s website has a wonderful Family Guide to read before you go. It is a good reminder to acknowledge your children’s emotions while they take in all the information. It is a hard subject and yes, it may be easiest to avoid it. But if we do that, when will things change? In my opinion, history is repeating itself right now in 2019. I believe a major reason for that is because so many of us failed to have those hard conversations. But you don’t have to do it alone. The museum’s guide is a great asset to have before you visit because let’s face it-this is some heavy stuff.
“I AM A MAN”
One of my favorite parts of the museum was the “I am A Man” exhibit. It was the whole reason why Martin Luther King was in Memphis. I never knew much about the Sanitation Workers’ Strike. You can read all about the conditions at work for the sanitation workers that led to the long overdue strike. It is horrendous and the phrase “I am a Man” simply and clearly states the reason for the strike. These men were treated as anything but men. Big Sister asked why they held signs with that statement. And I likened it to Black Lives Matter. It’s not that these men were stating something everyone already knows. They were reminding the city and the country, that yes they are men and they deserve to be treated the same way as other men and not just a means to an end (cleaning up garbage.) I also explained to her why their jobs are so important and how easy it is for us to take it for granted. It was a good reminder for me as well.
KING’S LAST HOURS
The museum is broken up into two parts. The first part is the Lorraine Building and the very last exhibit of the Lorraine Building takes you to the room that Martin Luther King stayed in before he was murdered. The line was long. It was crowded. I expected to cry when I saw it but I was actually numb at that part. Perhaps, I was paying more attention to the kiddos to make sure they didn’t act disrespectful in such a place. The room was made to look just like it was when he was killed. It does remind you that Martin Luther King is not just an icon we read in the history books but an actual man. A husband, a father, a brother, a friend. The country didn’t just lose one of its greatest leaders, some also lost a man that they truly loved. It makes the murder more of a reality and your heart breaks for those that didn’t lose a piece of hope but lost “Martin.”
WE NEEDED A BREAK
We had spent about two hours at the first part of the museum and I was emotionally spent. I needed a break and I knew the kids needed to take a break too. I was tired and anxious. I knew if we went into the second part immediately we would just rush through it and not soak any of it in. So we had lunch. It’s perfect. There are many places you can eat within walking distance and a trolley if you feel like going farther. You can enter the second part of the museum at any time the same day before closing as long as you still have your tickets. It was a great time to just rejuvenate our emotions and our brains.
THE LEGACY BUILDING
Once we returned to the museum, we entered the second part that was across the street from the Lorraine Building. This building is called the Legacy Building. The crowds at this point had dispersed so we pretty much had the museum to ourselves. Which I am glad of because we did not know what to expect. After riding up the elevator, we realized that this was the boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed and shot Martin Luther King. I honestly don’t remember what we saw before we walked to the back of the building. Once we got to the back of the building, we saw what looked like a dorm room encased in protective glass and the window was ajar. THIS was the crime scene. The room where James Earl Ray pulled the trigger. The emotions flooded me. The hate that was once in this very spot made me tremble to my core. As you look out the window, you can see exactly where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood when he was shot.
SEARCH FOR THE KILLER AND LINGERING QUESTIONS
Next, there is a collection of evidence and a timeline of James Earl Ray’s actions. As a former attorney, I found this very interesting. But The Hubs found the following exhibit even more interesting. The exhibit focused on the conspiracy theory of whether or not James Earl Ray acted alone or at the direction of another. The exhibit pointed out many discrepancies and unanswered questions. I won’t get too deep into it. If you ever visit Memphis, you can see it for yourself and make up your own mind BUT it is very interesting.
I AM A CHILD
Lastly, we saw the “I AM A CHILD” exhibit. This is a temporary exhibit showing only through March 31, 2019. I thought this was a perfect end to the museum because it mirrors the “I AM A MAN” exhibit across the street. But it also shows there is still work to be done. It’s what motivated me to have that conversation with Big Sister.
Big Sister, The Hubs, and I enjoyed the second part of the museum but Brother was very bored. There really wasn’t much to keep my preschooler interested. I highly recommend the second part of the museum. It doesn’t take a long time. We spent about 45 minutes there(we could’ve spent longer but Brother was acting up.) But this part of the museum is more for the adults in my opinion so you can skip over it if necessary.
If there is anything you do while in Memphis it must be this museum. Sure, it’s not fun and lighthearted games but it is amazing and necessary. The lessons that you and your children take away from the museum is bound to be invaluable.
To find resources that I used for my children such as books you can read Learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.