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VOL. 129 | NO. 66 | Friday, April 04, 2014

Museum Milestone

National Civil Rights Museum begins new chapter

By Bill Dries

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When the National Civil Rights Museum formally reopens Saturday, April 5, it will be with the “breaking” of a ceremonial chain at the new entrance to the building that was once the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Keith Gay, left, and Jacob Kirscht of 1220 Exhibits cut a piece of an exhibit to shape at the National Civil Rights Museum, which reopens this weekend. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And it will mark another milestone in an institution that has a history of its own after 23 years.

On Friday, the anniversary of the assassination, the museum will hold a candlelight vigil in the courtyard starting at 6 p.m.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam will be part of the event. Haslam toured the museum two days after taking the oath of office as governor in 2011 and committed the state to providing $2.5 million of the funding for the renovation, the second half of $5 million in funding that began during the last year of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

Earlier in the day Friday, the museum will mark another anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with a panel discussion from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. moderated by Tavis Smiley and including civil rights veteran Bernard Lafayette and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

The motel, which included an older Lorraine Hotel, was bought just short of foreclosure on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse in the late 1980s by a group of African-American business and civic leaders whose goal was to create the museum.

The project was funded with state, county and city dollars. And the city’s discussion on museum funding took place among a Memphis City Council whose members still included some who had served on the council in 1968, during the sanitation workers strike chronicled in the original version of the museum and featured more prominently in the $27 million renovation that debuts to the public Saturday.

The museum building itself is owned by the state of Tennessee, which leases it to the museum foundation for $1.

The museum’s ceremonial opening on July 4, 1991, came at the height of the historic race for Memphis mayor between incumbent Dick Hackett and challenger Willie Herenton. There was little evidence of the political struggle at the opening, which featured Rosa Parks cutting the ribbon.

Parks also took a seat on the 1950s-era Montgomery bus near the seated figure of her own likeness that remains an exhibit in the renovated museum.

Meanwhile, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton whose presidential campaign would begin shortly, was among those who spoke at the opening along with then-Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter. He had been among the Tennessee National Guardsmen from other parts of the state who were sent to Memphis before and after King’s death in 1968.

One of Clinton’s predecessors as Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, was another of the figures in the original museum. Faubus, who died in 1994, did not attend the opening. But the other figure in the exhibit on the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, Daisy Bates, the newspaper publisher who organized the group of African-American students who integrated the school, did attend the opening, taking in the replica of the front of the high school and her own image as well as that of Faubus.

The museum’s opening to the public was delayed until the fall of 1991 to complete all of the exhibits as well as for an overhaul of the introductory film “Cornerstone of Freedom,” which Michael Fitts, the Tennessee state architect at the time said in a written press release “is vital to the success of the museum and needs not to be compromised. The project is not complete without it.”

The museum’s renovation features more than 40 new films as well as interactive displays that allow visitors to select extended oral histories, interviews and speeches if they want to explore a topic more deeply.

King’s children have toured the museum. His widow, Coretta Scott King, was honored after the opening by the museum but did not tour it, signifying the ambivalence King’s family has had and expressed about Memphis over the last 40 years.

Lorraine Foundation President D’Army Bailey instead arranged for her to ride by the museum’s courtyard in a private moment without the press before she was honored at a banquet at The Peabody hotel.

A green laser beam marking the path of the bullet that killed King was a brief chapter in the museum’s development.

The museum opened an annex in 2002 dealing more specifically with the assassination within what was the boarding house where James Earl Ray fired the shot that killed King. The annex includes evidence from the police investigation of the assassination released to the museum by the Criminal Court Clerk’s office four years after Ray’s death ended his attempts to take back his guilty plea to the murder. The annex also includes a review of alternate theories about the assassination and a look at human rights movements around the world.

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