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North America » United States » Tennessee » Memphis
April 20th 2011
Published: January 30th 2012
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Lorraine Hotel SignLorraine Hotel SignLorraine Hotel Sign

Original sign of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was killed

National Civil Rights Museum





Today, I visit one of the most important museums of the entire trip

The National Civil Rights Museum opened twenty years ago to document a truly traumatic time in US history.

Ironically, Memphis had less activity than most cities in the South.

The museum is here because Martin Luther King was killed by a sniper here in 1968.

The museum is located in the former Loraine Hotel, where he died.

In many ways, it’s a monument to his legacy.





The first thing visitors see is the hotel façade.

Part of the hotel has been torn down, but the remainder has been incorporated into the museum.

It looks like just another classic 1950s motel, until one knows what happened here.

The upper balcony in front of one room has a memorial plaque to Dr. King, and a wreath.

There has been a wreath in front of that room since the awful events occurred.





Inside, the museum tells the story of civil rights campaigns.

They began long before the 1960s.

As early as 1650, slaves were rebelling in the US colonies, and northerners were
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Memorial wreath on the balcony where Martin Luther King was killed in 1968
campaigning against slavery.

It has a copy of the famous diagram of a crowded British slave ship, the Brookes, that helped swing public sentiment against the overseas slave trade.

There is a section on John Brown, who brought anti-slavery settlers into Kansas, was nearly killed by a Southern mob, and later seized Harpers Ferry to incite a slave rebellion.

He was tried and hanged.

His final words proved prophetic: “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood".





The section on the Civil War is surprisingly small, but there is quite a bit on the creation of Jim Crow laws afterward.

The museum has on display segregationist leaflets and KKK pamphlets, which make clear just how much racial fear played into their activities.

The NAACP was founded during this era in 1909, and the museum has copies of their manifestoes.





Things picked up after World War II.

The US government originally tried to exclude African Americans from both service and defense industry employment, but was forced to take them due to manpower shortages.

The war changed African American attitudes.

They still were not treated as
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Memorial plaque for Martin Luther King at the former Lorainne Hotel
equals, but they got much better treatment than at home.

Perhaps more importantly, they were exposed to European societies where racial equality was much closer to reality.

After returning home, black veterans were shocked by what they experienced, and now felt they should do something about it.


Highlander Folk School



The first significant event happened in 1948.

A group of religious white women led by Myles Horton formed a school in Tennessee to teach poor blacks, the Highlander Folk School.

Thanks to local pressure, the school eventually moved to Beaufort, South Carolina and became part of the Penn School.

Its significance to later events is that the school became a center of organizing and training.

Almost every major civil rights leader studied or taught here at some point.

It should go without saying that local officials harassed the school and its organizers constantly, one of the factors in its move to South Carolina.

In 1948, the school was criminally charged was spreading communism.

Although the school was ultimately found innocent, a poster of Martin Luther King attending a “communist subversive” meeting there became very popular in white neighborhoods over the next few
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The home of WDIA, the first radio station aimed at African Americans, in Memphis.
decades.





The next section covers the first major battle, school desegregation.

The case itself gets quite a bit of coverage, although not as much as the Courage exhibit at the Museum of the New South in Charlotte (see The New South).

After the win by the NAACP, the real battle started.

The Supreme Court decision left it up to the states to implement the order, and many chose to implement it as slow as possible.


Little Rock Central High School



Tension steadily built until Little Rock Central High integrated in 1957.

The governor at the time, Orval Faubus, had the reputation as a moderate.

He tried to stay out of the controversy, until white parents revolted.

He gave a speech that unfortunately became a staple of segregationist rhetoric for the next decade.

He stated that the issue for him was not about integration, it was about public safety.

Mixing black and white would lead to violence, so the logical response was to continue segregation.

The state and federal governments had different interests, and the tenth amendment (all powers not explictly delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states or American people) meant that
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A family's entertainment lifeline in the 1920's, AM radio
the state interests must prevail.

He sent National Guard troops to keep black kids out of the school.





President Ike Eisenhower, who until this point viewed desegregation as a minor issue, took that action as an affront to the federal government .

He federalized the Arkansas National Guard, and ordered them away from Little Rock.

The governor replaced them with city police.

Eisenhower then sent in the 101th Army Airborne, and the battle was on.

Scenes of army soldiers escorting black teenagers past riot police and screaming whites went nationwide.

Conditions inside were even worse, where the only thing preventing a riot were soldiers.

The situation lasted for months.





The most chilling part of this display is the propaganda pamphlets distributed by local white parents and the KKK.

All of them paint blacks as lawless hoodlums, and warn parents about their influence over their children.

One listed a breakdown of major crime arrests in the last five years by race, pointedly mentioning how the black percentage compared to the population as a whole.

Another pamphlet is even blunter: “You are
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Wall of instruments from the rural South of the 1920s
white because your ancestors practiced segregation. Preserve our race.”

Scary stuff, even after fifty years (the parallels to current anti-immigration arguments are not pointed out).


Montgomery Bus Boycott



The next display is on the Montgomery bus boycott, which brought Martin Luther King to prominence for the first time.

It was started by Rosa Parks, a seamstress, in 1955.

At the time, seats at the front of the bus were reserved for whites.

Seats in the middle were usable by either race, but blacks had to give up their seats at the request of the driver.

The driver told Rosa Parks to give up her seat for a white man.

She stated she was tired and refused.

Although often depicted as a spontaneous act, she was active in the local NAACP chapter and they had discussed something like this for a while beforehand.

She was then arrested for refusing the orders of a bus driver, and fined ten dollars.





The local black community did not take this very well.

Local leaders decided to organize a protest.

They elected as their leader the new preacher of a
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Early days of the blues in a segregated Memphis
local church, Martin Luther King.

He was not well known yet, but his sermons were inspiring and he was very charismatic.

The big problem to solve was that most African Americans in Montgomery depended on the bus system to get to work.

The group secretly organized an independent ride system coordinated through local churches.

Churches were chosen because they were the one spot that local authorities did not spy on.

The bus boycott started soon afterward, and it was so effective the bus company went bankrupt!





Martin Luther King expected the local government to quickly open negotiations, but officials went into a siege state instead.

They tried everything, legal and illegal, to bring the boycott to an end.

They offered free fares.

They charged the leaders with creating a public nuisance (Martin Luther King was the only one actually tried).

They finally charged the car drivers with operating an unlicensed taxi service.

While this last case was in trial, the city, under pressure from white business owners, passed an ordinance to desegregate the bus system.





African Americans learned three valuable
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Display on the first radio station aimed at African American audiences
lessons from this.

First, non-violent pressure would eventually bring results.

Second, officials and conservative whites were going to fight back hard.

Most importantly, to be successful future actions would need to be highly organized.


Lunch Counter Sit-ins



The next major action was the lunch counter sit-ins.

These actions were organized by local college students.

The first was in Greensboro North Carolina in 1960.

They walked into segregated lunch counters, and refused to leave after being refused service.

Many read textbooks while they waited.

These actions were highly organized.

The students involved were carefully screened, after many tests to see who would react to abuse and how.

The museum has news video of some of the actions, and the abuse is unimaginable.

Insults from white customers were just the start.

They threw things, they poured drinks on people, they picked fights, they stole books.

In several places, the police ultimately arrested people.

In response to this, the movement created the “jail no bail” mantra.

By staying in jail for weeks, they would fill them up and make other police business impossible.

It took years,
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One of hundreds of jukeboxes supplied by Plastic Products, the most important record manufacturer in the South. They distributed every label in Memphis.
but the lunch counter sit-ins also succeeded.





Martin Luther King and other civil rights campaigners learned from these actions as well.

Going place by place and community by community was too slow.

They needed something dramatic that would get attention across the country and prod Congress to pass strong legislation.

The most sympathetic response to the sit-ins had been caused by violent police reactions to peaceful demonstrators.

Martin Luther King and others looked for a city that was guaranteed to produce this response.

They found it.

Birmingham, Alabama practically chose itself.


Birmingham



Birmingham had the reputation as the most enthusiastic supporters of segregation long before the civil rights era.

Laws here were among the harshest in the country and the police the most active in enforcing them.

The police at the time were led by one Bull Conner, who viewed blacks as the scourge of the earth.

If a restaurant did not segregate customers, he cited them for violating the sanitary code.

He once famously stated “I am the law in Birmingham”, and was quick to back it up.

On top of
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Recording equipment used by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios.
all that, the Alabama state government was no better.

Governor George Wallace, after all, infamously quoted in his inauguration speech: “Segregation Today,
Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever!”





The campaign in Birmingham started in early 1963.

It began with sit-ins and boycotts of white owned stores, and spread to daily marches on city hall.

Bull Conner had the participants arrested and pressured their employers to fire them.

Martin Luther King responded by recruiting local high school students, who did not have livelihoods to threaten.

Bull Conner’s police arrested them as fast as they could march.

Images of police arresting teenagers went nationwide.





Bull Conner then really showed his power.

He had the fire department open water hoses on the marchers to drive them from the street.

When that didn’t work, he had his officers club people and brought in German Sheppards.

He finally arrested Martin Luther King for inciting a riot, and threw him in jail for six months.

While there, King wrote the famous treatise “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”.

The museum has a replica of the jail cell.

The response of the KKK was even more extreme.

They
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Saxaphone and outfits used by soul artists on Stax.
bombed local black churches, killing four young girls in one of them (it took fifty years for the perpetrators to finally be convicted).

The violence got the nation’s attention, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

The museum has a letter from John F Kennedy to Martin Luther King on display: “Bull Conner is as much responsible for the advancement of blacks as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation”.


Voting Rights



One of the myths of the civil rights era is that there was a single overriding organization pushing for desegregation.

In reality, there were many organizations, with goals that were not always aligned.

Martin Luther King’s great ability was to convince these groups to work together for common purpose.

After the Civil Rights Act passed, convincing people of that purpose became much harder, and the movement started to fizzle out.

Martin Luther King reformed it around the issue of voting rights.

Southern states, Alabama and Mississippi in particular, were geniuses at preventing blacks from voting.

The museum has a display of the long list of reasons county officials used to prevent people from registering to vote (“I’m sorry, we are out of forms today. Come
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A wall of guitars signed by famous Memphis artists at the Rock and Soul Museum
back next week’).





In this vein, Martin Luther King organized the famous Selma march.

Selma, like Birmingham, was chosen very deliberately.

The town had a sheriff, James G Clark Jr., that was every bit as violent and segregationist as Bull Conner.

He was well known for harassing local black groups and responded to the match pretty much as organizers anticipated.

He blocked the main road, used fire hoses, and arrested people.

It certainly got people’s attention.

Eventually, the sheriff gave in and allowed the march to proceed.

The marchers were harassed all the way to Montgomery, and only a handful made it the whole way.





What got people’s attention even more was a frightening incident in Mississippi.

A group of white northern college students had organized what they called Freedom Summer.

Groups travelled though the countryside, helping local Blacks register to vote.

Often, they disguised themselves as sharecroppers to avoid local police.

In Philadelphia Mississippi in 1964, three of them, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, were stopped by a deputy sheriff for speeding.

Six weeks later, their mangled bodies were
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The blinged out watch and coat that once belonged to soul legend Isaac Hayes
discovered in a newly built dam.

Believe it or not, the local police could not find any suspects!

President Johnson was incensed and brought in the FBI.

A month later, several members of the local sheriff’s office lead by Cecil Price, all members of the KKK, were arrested and tried in Federal court.

The museum has a famous, and frightening, picture of the men in court; they are calmly relaxed, confident of their near-absolute power.

Six were convicted.

(The museum sadly lacks the poster with this picture created by a Vietnam protester in New York, with the headline “Support Your Local Police”).


Final Days of MLK



The trial created enough outrage that Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act soon afterward.

This marked the civil rights era’s greatest victory, and also its last.

The common purpose that had united disparate groups soon disappeared, and many moved to protesting against the Vietnam War.

Martin Luther King switched to trying to help poor blacks in major cities; in his view de facto discrimination is still discrimination.

He was supporting these goals when he came to Memphis to provide support for a strike
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Desegregation comes to Memphis
by Black sanitation workers, who were paid only half of white workers and often sent home without work.

King was on the balcony of the hotel, discussing details of a protest the next day, when a sniper killed him.

The final part of the museum is a walk into the recreated hotel rooms, which are preserved behind glass.

Visitors, almost by instinct, fall silent.





The museum has precious little detail about what happened after King’s death.

After all, the museum is as much a King memorial as anything else.

It took until the early seventies for the entire South to officially integrate, and in some places it never happened fully.

The museum also does not discuss any parallels between the events of that era and the current debates happening in the country.

I can understand the latter, since the museum wants to be as politically neutral as possible.

The Museum of the New South in Charlotte is much stronger in this respect.


Rock and Soul Museum



After the Civil Rights Museum, I explored history of a different vein.

Remember from yesterday that Memphis
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Desegregation comes to Memphis
is the birthplace of rock and roll, soul, and blues.

The story of that incredible music legacy, and why it occurred here, is told in the Rock and Soul Museum.

It happened because Memphis was at the crossroads of multiple cultures, and visionary men were in the right place at the right time.





The museum starts with displays on the rural South, both black and white.

Life was primitive and hard.

Most people were poor, and worked as either sharecroppers or tenant farmers.

Long hours were spent working on the land.

For entertainment, they sang songs while working.

The songs grew out of older folk traditions in either Africa or Europe.

In the 1920s, if a family was lucky, they saved enough money to buy a battery AM radio.

Saturday night became a ritual of listening to music on the radio.

For whites, it was mostly the Grand Ole Opry.

For blacks, it was mostly blues and gospel.

The museum has booths to listen to snippets of these songs.





The situation changed in the Depression.

Poor families were driven off
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Soul music's influence on the civil right's movement
the land, and most in this area moved to Memphis.

They brought their music with them.

Some played for a living in local speakeasies and clubs.

For the first time, people heard music from other cultures, and incorporated it into their own.

The first main innovation was blues.

Black musicians learned how to make guitars wail and scream with sounds never heard before.

Robert Johnson became the first star.

He claimed he sold his soul to the devil in return for his music talent.

It should come as no surprise that he died after less than a decade of performing.

The museum has booths to listen to his music, along with other early bluesmen.





Rock and roll was the vanguard of the new styles.

It was created by multiple visionaries, all of whom mixed blues rhythms with country arrangements.

It’s a sign of the times that white performers did significantly better financially than their black counterparts.

The most famous, of course, is Elvis Presley.

The music’s huge success was partly sociological.

Teenagers in the 1950s, the baby boomers, wanted a culture of their own, separate from their parents.

Rock and roll, with its mixture of different ethnic traditions, was it.

The music reeked of sex, fun, and other things different to the years of depression and war.

The music and culture it embodied spread worldwide.

The museum, naturally, has copies of early records on Sun, including Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Ike Turner.





The innovations in Memphis could not happen with just musicians alone.

It needed visionary promoters to bring the music to a wider audience.

They fell in two main categories, labels and radio.

A businessman named Robert Williams opened a service to distribute records to jukeboxes throughout the South.

He needed a larger supply, so he opened a record plant, Plastic Products.

They were the only record plant in the South, and they distributed the records recorded by all the labels in Memphis.

Sam Phillips (see Walking in Memphis) also gets his due.

The museum points out something that the Sun Records tour does not: Sam Phillips came from a small rural town, so he was much more willing to give acts from other small rural towns a chance than his rivals.

Sam took chances on an incredible number of acts over the years.





Radio was equally important.

A series of innovative managers, such as Dewey Phillips, programmed the music they heard in clubs rather than that dictated by the charts.

Memphis was the site of the first ratio station to play music favored by African Americans, WDIA, which started in 1948.

It took a while to find an audience.

The museum makes the point that without this infrastructure, the Memphis music revolution would have been stillborn.





Soul music came a little later.

Like rock and roll on Sun Records, it too was supported by a visionary label, Stax.

Stax Records was founded by two white promoters who loved the blues, Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton.

They hired writers and players who mixed blues with a deep gospel tradition to form what became soul music.

Soul was much more popular in African American communities than elsewhere.

One of the most important soul artists was an eighteen year old from Memphis who worked as a Stax session musician for a while: Isaac Hays.





The final part of the museum discusses a topic that is rarely discussed in music museums, the effect Memphis music had on the subsequent civil rights movement.

Remember that these music styles were a blend of different cultural traditions.

The music exposed young people to ethnic traditions outside their own for the first time.

Many of them ultimately took further steps to be involved with people directly.

Lots of northern whites ultimately became civil rights activists in the south, with Freedom Summer and other groups.

Soul artists in particular became heavily involved in civil rights issues.

Isaac Hays became so well known for his community activism that he got the nickname “Black Moses”





Memphis music history effectively ends in the middle 1960s.

Rock and other music had spread far and wide by this point, so Memphis was no longer the crucible of innovation it had been.

The British Invasion pretty much killed off whatever was left.

The museum tries to convince people that the city is still a vital part of the music scene, but it falls rather flat.

Memphis is still vital, but it’s just one piece of a much larger pie now.

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