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Remembering The Movement? A Question for the National Civil Rights Museum

How do we teach the Movement? The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis asserts in its name its claim to offer an exemplary, nationally significant model.

Fifty years ago this August the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom established the place of the Civil Rights Movement in the core of the national consciousness. Commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, filling the memorial dedicated to the president who proclaimed it, the march positioned the Movement in its historical context. National attention focused on the speaker introduced that day as the “moral leader of the nation.” Opening with an appeal to the hopes embodied in emancipation, Martin Luther King moved to a stirring invocation of the Declaration of Independence, locating the moral headwater of the Movement in the most fundamental aspirations of the nation’s first text. After the “dream” speech, the Civil Rights Movement could not be discounted as the regional activity of a minority. Its activism was the movement of the nation toward self-realization. How we remember the Movement became, that day, an index of how we remember what we once set out to become; how we teach it, an index of the vigor — or senility — of the national memory.

How do we teach the Movement? The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis asserts in its name its claim to offer an exemplary, nationally significant model. Centered in the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination, the NCRM aspires to inspire “participation in civil and human rights efforts globally.” What can we learn from its treatment of its subject matter about the condition of the national memory?

The first lesson is not found in the content of its first exhibit, but in the controversy that has touched the Museum from its first days. Its mission — in this, all agree — is to teach the Movement. But what does that mean?[1] Two insiders articulated conflicting responses in a 2007 NPR interview. Circuit Judge D’Army Bailey, the museum’s founder and first board president, envisioned it as “a facility that would incite and spur people to action.” Long-time board member Gregory Duckett demurred. It should, he countered, be “a more passive, museum-type institution.” It “was never designed,” Duckett insisted, “to be an activist institution.” There you have it: Judge Bailey, speaking from a lifetime of experience in civil rights activism; Mr. Duckett, vice president of Baptist Memorial Health Care Systems, Inc., speaking for the board majority that ousted Bailey in 1992.

2007, the year of the Bailey-Duckett exchange, was a pivotal one. The private foundation that operates the museum, the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, leases the Lorraine from the State of Tennessee — and the lease was up for renewal. The Foundation hoped to exercise an option to buy the property outright for $1.00, or procure a 50-year lease. These plans, which would have removed or minimized the last remnant of public control over the museum, sparked a wave of protest.

Criticism focused on a perceived disjunct between the board’s makeup and museum’s mission. “There’s nothing wrong with having corporate members” on the board, National AFSCME secretary Bill Lacy commented, “but it ought not have corporate domination.” The King Center in Atlanta joined critics who argued that the board was “too closely tied to big business.” Opponents accused the board of replacing the values of the Civil Rights Movement with corporate ones. “What better public relations instrument do they have in the city (than) where Dr. King died?” D’Army Bailey asked. “They have hijacked King.”

Museum director Beverly Robertson, speaking in 2007, defended the board against critics who complained it was too corporate and too white. “A lot of people who are on our board, who have jobs in corporate America, are African-Americans, who come from the hood, who’ve just been successful and are continuing to be successful in their lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” But Judge Bailey’s nephew Jay Bailey, himself a lawyer, speaking that August in an emotionally charged public forum on the museum’s future, characterized board members Duckett, Maxine Smith, and Benjamin Hooks as black leaders “historically controlled by corporations.” Perhaps the most troubling rebuke came from State representative Barbara Cooper, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. The board, Cooper asserted, was “in the hands of a few privileged citizens.” It was “unlikely that retention of power by a dominant few on the board will ever ‘ensure fresh ideas and promote long-term growth’ for the NCRM.” Her conclusion: “The community that Dr. King represented, the nameless, the rejected, and the marginalized, have no voice on the board.”

For many, board member Pitt Hyde III exemplified the questionable nature of corporate influence. Hyde, founder of the Fortune 500 company AutoZone, is the most prominent member of a family that had donated some $4 million to the museum ($5 million more in 2012). What values did those millions represent? In 2007, AutoZone faced an EOCC racial discrimination lawsuit concerning hiring practices in its central offices in Memphis. The year before, Hyde had brought in President George W. Bush to support the candidate opposing Harold Ford Jr.’s bid to become the state’s first black senator. Ford was defeated in what one observer called “the most racist campaign of the 2006 election.”

In the end, the state granted a fifteen-year lease — on condition the foundation diversify its membership. The consequences of the mandated changes are hard to judge. “Unity,” the editor of a Memphis newspaper wrote in April, 2009, is “still out of reach.” There was “little accord about the National Civil Rights Museum’s role in the community.”

Today the museum’s two permanent exhibition halls face each other across the old motel parking lot, monuments to the disconnect in the museum’s historical identity: on one side, the original Lorraine space; on the other, the “Legacy Building.” The former opened in 1991 when D’Army Bailey was still in charge. The latter opened in 2002 — with the board, in Cooper’s words, “in the hands of a few privileged citizens.”

We turn, first, to the older structure. It is a construction site. It closed in November of 2012 to allow for a $27 million renovation project, due to reopen in early 2014. A detailed review written in 1996 by Smithsonian executive Amy Wilson provides a lively account of its content. The Lorraine exhibits, she wrote, are “interactive, engaging, and stimulating.” Following her lead, we take a seat in a 1955 Montgomery, Alabama city bus, next to (a mannequin representing) Rosa Parks. A loud voice commands us to move to the back of the bus. The longer we refuse, the louder the command. Similarly interactive exhibits portray the Greensboro, NC Woolworth sit in, the integration of “Ole Miss” by James Meredith, the Selma marches, the 1968 strike of the Memphis sanitation workers. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Freedom Summer exhibits, Wilson says, are chaotic but add, nevertheless, to a “growing sense of excitement.” “The NCRM,” she concludes, “is a landmark, a historical panorama, and a political statement. It is, she adds, in words that must have pleased Judge Bailey, “a partisan effort to persuade visitors to act.”

Jacqueline Smith outside the NCRM. (Dreier 3/8/2013)

We walk now across the parking lot to the Legacy Building, formerly Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House, where James Earl Ray once rented a room with a view of the Lorraine. The Legacy presents civil rights history as a process leading up to April 4, 1968, the day of the assassination. Two timelines, one in the entryway, the other on the second floor, establish this chronology. In the elevator to the second floor where the exhibits begin, a recording of the first radio report of the shooting plays. When the doors open, our eyes fasten on James Earl Ray’s carefully restored white 1966 Mustang. Ray’s reconstructed boardinghouse room and bathroom dominate the other end of the hall. Here is Ray’s Remington Gamemaster 760 .30-06 rifle; here, his brown wool suit jacket. The “Did Ray Have Help? Did Someone Else Do It?” display explores conspiracy theories and questions about the possible involvement of the Memphis Police, the FBI, the Mafia. One appreciates the critique of the single-shooter theory; one also understands why the museum’s most dedicated critic, Jacqueline Smith, calls it the “James Earl Ray Memorial.”

On the first floor a 1954-to-the-present timeline leads to an exhibit juxtaposing “Memphis Then” and “Memphis Now.” Among the pictures illustrating the journey from Jim Crow to the election of the first African American mayor in 1991 are two color photographs, one of the AutoZone Park sign (AutoZone, Inc. purchased naming rights to the ballpark in 1999 for $4.3 million), and one of FedEx airplanes (Pitt Hyde served on the FedEx board for 34 years). No captions explain the prominent placement of these photos; it is, perhaps, self-evident to Memphians.

The final exhibit hall, on the north side of the first floor, provides a sort of emotional climax. Pictures of “Freedom Award” honorees fill one wall. A film that combines clips of Nelson Mandela with cold war rhetoric loops continuously, laying out the global dimensions of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. The struggle to overcome authoritarian regimes, we are informed, continues in countries less fortunate than ours, like China and Cuba. On that note, the tour ends. Here, as in Graceland, the only way out is through the gift shop.

What have we learned? “The Legacy” reduces the Civil Rights Movement to a single person, and that person to the moment of martyrdom. Other civil rights leaders are named; some even pictured as collateral martyrs in a memorial on the second floor. But none of these lives receives the square footage of attention devoted to that of the presumed assassin. The allocation of attention reflects the narrative mode. Ray’s role, pathetic as it was in history, is essential to the passion play. King, the human being, is eclipsed by the hero, the great man, the martyr bleeding on the balcony. History reduces, here, to the ritual retracing of the steps to the cross. There is no place in the liturgy for the mundane complexities of King’s earthly life — the wearying debates over strategy; the difficulties involved in negotiating with two presidents; the strain of maintaining relations between the various groups and communities involved in the Movement — no room, in other words, for the challenges and vulnerabilities that reveal his humanity and call us, despite our own shortcomings, to act in his spirit.

The “Legacy” exhibits do reference the idea that the Civil Rights Movement must go on — in a general, noncommittal mode. But no effort is made to foreground the issues that cry out for civil rights activism today: the persistent increase in segregation by race and poverty in public schools; the attacks on voting rights; the spread of racial profiling; the 2-to-1 black/white unemployment ratio, consistent for all regions and levels of education since 1963. The displays are not designed to move. They lack the dynamic interactivity that characterized the Lorraine. The visitor looks at pictures; reads captions; takes in videos. “The Legacy” invokes the emotional drama of the tragedy — and exhausts itself in it. It is, as Gregory Duckett put it, a “more passive, museum-type institution.”

What is indicated here about the condition of the national memory? The Museum’s permanent exhibit halls offer divergent responses: a moving one, aligned to the historical trajectory of which King dreamed in 1963, and a motionless one, structured to contain potentially moving memories in “passive, museum-type institutions.” The former, dating from the Museum’s struggling days, invokes the still moving power of “the nameless, the rejected, and the marginalized” who moved the Movement. The latter, established in an era of growing financial comfort, reflects greater sensitivity to the niceties of corporate largesse. The two exhibits, snapshots, as it were, of the national psyche, are separate, but not exactly equal. The newer space is open for business; the older, closed for renovation. Self & Tucker, a Memphis architectural firm that worked on the Legacy, is also involved in this project. One hopes that something of Bailey’s spirit — the revolutionary spirit of 1776 and 1863 that King invoked in 1963 — survives.

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