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VOL. 127 | NO. 208 | Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Expanding Legacy

Renovations set to begin at National Civil Rights Museum

By Bill Dries

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Their annual Freedom Awards and public forum now complete for another year, leaders of the National Civil Rights Museum prepare next month for construction on the 21-year-old museum that chronicles the civil rights movement.

Visitors Shoji Yajima, left, and wife, Takako Yajima, of Japan visit an exhibit chronicling the March on Washington inside the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum soon will undergo its first renovation.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

It will be the first renovation of the museum since its opening in July 1991.

Some exhibits will be off limits during the phased renovation work. Others will move, but the museum will not be closed.

“We’ll be partially open. We’ll be open across the street but we’ll be engaged in construction inside the historic Lorraine Motel,” said museum president Beverly Robertson, referring to the museum annex across Mulberry Street from what was the Lorraine Motel.

Flintco LLC, the general contractor on the project, earlier this month filed a $7.5 million permit application with the city-county Office of Construction Code Enforcement for the first phase of construction.

The motel building, which is the part of the museum being renovated, was expanded after its life as a motel to create the exhibits including the preserved rooms that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his inner circle stayed in at the time of his assassination April 4, 1968, on the motel balcony.

“They’ll be able to walk onto the balcony, which is the first time we’ve really ever opened it up to the public,” Robertson said.

The annex, opened several years later, deals with the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination and the civil rights movement after King’s death to the present. That will change somewhat during the renovation with tours beginning in the annex and ending with a walk across Mulberry and the courtyard to the balcony.

“We’re going to integrate some elements of the historic Lorraine (Motel) into the building across the street,” Robertson said. “They won’t miss the whole experience. We’ll still do our orientation video. And then they’ll follow the path, which is what happened after the assassination.”

The renovations will change the look of the museum with many exhibits getting more modern technology than what was considered state of the art 20 years ago. Maintaining that technology has become a problem just in getting parts to repair it.

Meanwhile, visitors to the museum in recent months have been getting a look at the artist renderings of the renovated museum. Those drawings include an exhibit on slavery that would simulate conditions on a slave ship.

The renovation is being paid for with a $27 million capital campaign that has so far raised $22 million. The goal is to raise the rest by the first half of 2013 and then focus on building a $13 million endowment fund that stands at $2 million.

The museum’s renovation begins in an interesting time for the chronicling of the movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Bernard Lafayette, a cofounder of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and part of King’s inner circle, was among the Freedom Award winners – the only one of the winners who was a veteran of the movement.

The museum’s foundation varies its choices for the awards to reflect present leaders of international movements as well as veterans of past chapters.

It is those past chapters that are increasingly beyond the memories of most of the visitors to the museum. It’s a phenomenon that Benjamin Lawless, a museum planner with the Smithsonian Institution, noted in the late 1980s when the museum was still in the planning stages.

The phenomenon includes new insights from those not only old enough to remember the events but those who participated and plotted strategy.

Lafayette continued an informal tradition among those in the movement who have been honored by the museum by linking the past that is now considered history to present day consequences.

He said it was a mistake for the movement to not pursue political activism more aggressively beyond the pitched battle for voting rights in the southern states most resistant to those rights.

Four years earlier, Diane Nash, whom Lafayette worked with on the Nashville sit-ins, expressed a similar desire to take another look at the movement’s legacy when she received a Freedom Award.

“Very few people … really understand the strategy that we used in the ’60s,” she said. “People saw demonstrations and thought that was the movement. … People are never your enemy. … Attitudes, racism, sexism … all of those are enemies. But not people.”

The new perspectives on events that are now history are non-exhibit elements the museum hopes to be able to explore with space for research and archives.

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