Many years have passed since the assassination of Martin Luther King, a prominent fighter for the rights of blacks in the United States. The Memphis motel where King was shot has been turned into the National Museum of the History of Civil Rights Struggles and Activists for Racial Equality and Justice.
In 1963, Martin Luther King and other black American civil rights leaders organized the March on Washington, a massive protest against discrimination against blacks in the nation’s public and political life. King addressed a crowd of two hundred thousand supporters with a passionate speech about equality, “I Have a Dream.”
Four years later, an assassin shot King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1987, the motel was turned into a museum. The room where King lived has been preserved as he left it on the day of his death.
According to museum director Beverly Robertson, the exhibit depicts stages in the history of the struggle for equal rights for black Americans “from the arrival of African slaves in America in the early 16th century to the Civil War and on through the process of school desegregation.” The exhibit tells the story of discrimination – how African-Americans were not allowed to enter homes through the front door, take the front seats on the bus, drink water from the same drinking fountains as whites, and more.
In the 1960s, Elaine Turner was a black civil rights activist in Memphis. She participated in demonstrations and appeared in places where African-Americans were forbidden to enter. “I went to restaurants, movie theaters, churches – anywhere that said ‘Whites Only Entrance,'” she recalls. – It was scary at times because we were constantly being threatened.”
But these actions were successful, Elaine Turner says. Eventually the segregation laws were repealed in Memphis: “But the hardest part was not changing the law, but changing the way people thought. The struggle for that continues to this day.”
Beverly Robertson notes that the civil rights movement for blacks in America had a huge impact on the world, and it was modeled after human rights movements in many countries.
“There are many parallels,” she says, “between the campaign for black rights in the United States and the struggle of the Chinese students who marched in Tiananmen Square, or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela, as well as many other campaigns for freedom and equality.
One booth is dedicated to Indian spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi, who used nonviolent methods of struggle to achieve socio-political change. Martin Luther King also preached nonviolent methods of struggle against the system of racial segregation, Beverly Robertson points out, “He borrowed the philosophy of nonviolence from Gandhi after his trip to India.”
Each year, the museum presents the Freedom Prize. This year’s recipients include former basketball player Magic Johnson, who works to help residents of poor Negro neighborhoods, civil rights movement historian John Hope Franklin, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson, of whom Beverly Robertson said: “She literally liberated her country and brought about democratic reforms, and now every Liberian citizen has the opportunity to have a decent job, a decent home, and to feed their family.”