Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s college fraternity, participate in a candlelight vigil to commemorate the 46th Anniversary of the assassination of King in front of the National Civil Rights Museum, April 4, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn.
Photo by Trymaine Lee

National Civil Rights Museum brings history to 21st century

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – From down on Mulberry Street, the Lorraine Motel here looks very much the way it did 46 years ago, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped from room 306, onto a second-floor balcony, and into eternity.

For the better part of the last half-century, much of the motel has been preserved in a time warp dated April 4, 1968 – the day King was cut down there by a sniper’s bullet.

The ornate signage for the motel still rises in a column of turquoise and yellow. A pair of classic cars is parked not too far away. But it’s what’s on the inside of the motel that has evolved with time.

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National Civil Rights Museum reopens

Alex Witt talks to MSNBC.com’s Trymaine Lee about the ceremony surrounding the reopening of the Civil Rights museum in Memphis, TN.
In 1991 the National Civil Rights Museum opened on the site, anchored by the motel and its adjoining property. It was one of the nation’s first expansive museum’s dedicated to the civil rights movement.

On Saturday, a day after the 46th anniversary of King’s assassination and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the museum will re-open its doors after an 18-month, $28 million reconstruction project.

The museum now boasts 52,000 square feet of exhibition space featuring historical replicas– including one of the bus Rosa Parks sat on – touch screen displays and archival footage from the civil rights era.

But the museum reaches far beyond the modern civil rights era, winding back through the early days of the Jim Crow era and the many social and political victories and setbacks along the way. There’s a recounting of the legal battle around Brown v. Board of Education, which knocked down notions of “separate but equal” that kept black children in inferior schools and segregated from white children. The museum traces the spread of black protests and boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins and the everyday folks-turned-heroes who participated.

There’s also a replica of a sanitation truck, an homage to the sanitation workers strike that initially brought King to Memphis.

The journey through the museum begins, though, with the slave trade and the treacherous middle passage in which enslaved Africans were carried across the Atlantic Ocean in the bellies of ships. There’s a replica of a slave ship galley, its quarters cramped with shackled slaves crouching and with just enough room for one more body to squeeze into.

“There’s room for someone to get in that space and feel the inhumanity of what it felt like to go miles and miles and miles on end through the middle passage. They can actually feel it rather than read about it,” said Beverly Robertson, president of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Robertson said the goal of the revamped museum is to connect a new generation to a historical narrative of struggle that may be fading with an older generation of Americans who were the last to experience the most explicit remnants of state-sanctioned racism. Museum leaders said it was critical to re-imagine how best to reach museum-goers who may be more apt to turn to an iPad rather than a history book.

“The reality is that people no longer want to walk through a museum and read a book off the wall,” Roberston said. “We haven’t changed the content of this history, because history is history. But we have changed the way in which we deliver the history and we’re delivering it to a whole new generation.”

 The museum worked with premier architectural firms and renowned scholars to hammer out the museum’s physical, historical and ideological framework.

People gather outside the National Civil Rights museum to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to mark the reopening of the museum, which underwent an 18-month, $28 million reconstruction project, April 4
People gather outside the National Civil Rights museum to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to mark the reopening of the museum, which underwent an 18-month, $28 million reconstruction project, April 4, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn.
Photo by Trymaine Lee

The museum began raising money for the expansion in 2008, but efforts were initially dimmed by the country’s financial meltdown. But in the following years, as the economy began to rebound, fundraisers ramped up their efforts.

Officials say the area surrounding the museum in downtown Memphis has gone through somewhat of a cultural renaissance since the museum underwent its first major expansion in 2002. Restaurants and shops have sprung up in what for years had been essentially a commercial “dead-zone.”

Officials said they hope to continue to expand the reach of the museum to a broader national and global audience.

As technologically improved as this latest iteration of the museum is, with all of the nuance of the black struggle for human and civil rights over the centuries, its foundation remains rooted in King’s assassination.

The sprawling, two-story museum unfurls emotionally from room 306, which sits behind a wall of glass and replicated to how King left it in the moments before being gunned down by James Earl Ray.

There’s a half-eaten lunch and a cup of coffee. An open container of milk and an old television set. And drab curtains leading to the balcony.

On Friday night, the museum will host a candlelight vigil in honor of King. Saturday’s grand re-opening will include a parade from the Cook Convention Center to the museum, a “breaking of chains” as it opens its doors, and musical performances and speeches.

Robertson reflected for a moment on King’s life and legacy and wondered aloud how he might gauge today’s civil rights issues.

“Many of the things that were fought for and were included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act are things that have been realized, but we have to be careful to maintain those things,” she said. “Because in some respects there are efforts underway to reverse some of those gains.”

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National Civil Rights Museum brings history to 21st century

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