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National Civil Rights Museum

(part of an ongoing series about activities during my sabbatical)

Our second stop in Nashville was to the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. At a surface level, what surprised us all was the size of this museum with artifacts, films, interactive exhibits, and oral histories. Even spending most of the day there, we were unable to see and explore all the museum had to offer.


This turned out to be a recurring theme on our trip - many of the sites had more than we could take in over the course of a day. The sheer volume of material and information often became more than one could absorb. The emotional impact of the material made this even more difficult. So, as I recount our visits, I won’t even begin to try and share all that we saw or learned at the museum but will simply try and highlight a theme or two and at times, perhaps a particular exhibit.

As we entered the museum, the first exhibit was a circular room which chronicled the Atlantic slave trade and the period from 1619-1861. As I alluded to earlier, I was quickly overwhelmed by the quantity of information, as the exhibits detailed the numbers of people enslaved, the good produced, and the wealth that was generated. No matter how many books I read or museums I visit I don’t think I will ever not find myself sickened by the treatment of the Africans sold into chattel slavery. And I pray that I never will.

Starting with the slave trade provides important context for much of American history and in particular the experience of African-Americans and the Civil Rights Movement. While slavery has been practiced in many cultures throughout history, the racial basis, involvement of the church, and capitalism uniquely shaped slavery in America and had repercussions for the future. I don’t have the room here to explore all of those issues but would be happy to share some resources with you if you want to learn more. The critical point is that an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement must begin with an examination of America’s racial history and that has its roots in the Atlantic slave trade.

Our journey through the museum continued with a journey through history: the Civil War, reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, segregation, and eventually the battles of the 1950s and 1960s in the courts and the streets of places like Memphis and Montgomery.

While I felt fairly familiar with the Montgomery Bus Boycott (we will come back to that in a future post) I did not know much about the Memphis sanitation strike. In the 1960s, most of the sanitation workers in Memphis were black and they went on strike in 1968 to protest their poor working conditions, low pay, and outdated equipment. This outdated equipment was the cause of at least two men’s death, which in part sparked the strike.

During the strike, the workers adopted the slogan “I am a man” and carried those signs as a symbol of their fight for equality, dignity, and respect. As I read more about the strike it became more clear to me how many people and leaders made a difference in the Civil Rights Movement. This was a lesson I was reminded of frequently during our trip. It’s easy to think of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But there were also people like James Lawson and T.O. Jones that made a difference and fought for equality.

As I said earlier I was not very familiar with the Memphis Sanitation Strike and this museum taught me much but more than that helped me see connections of events. In particular the fact that Martin Luther King came to Memphis in support of the strike and this is what put him in Memphis and at the Lorraine Motel on the day he was shot and killed. The night before his assassination, Dr. King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in which he said , “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

The faith, courage, and resilience of those I heard and read about at the museum inspired me - and that theme will come up again many other times during this journey.

Until next time,
Carl Franzon, Pastor