You cannot be an American, or understand America, without understanding the Civil Rights movement. It really is that simple. It is both America's greatest badge of shame and our finest hour, a time when the forces of bigotry and hatred were thwarted by courage and political will. It is an inspirational story, and one that needs to be told again and again and again so that it is never forgotten.
And I can't think of a better way to tell this story then by visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It is essential.
The exhibits begin with a fascinating history of racism, where they look at all aspects of racism throughout American history, from its use in advertising (Cream of Wheat guy, Aunt Jemima pancakes) to cartoons (some of the Looney Tunes cartoons are quite stunning). From there, the museum takes you through the history of the Civil Rights movement, starting well back in time with Frederick Douglass and others before moving forward to the 60s and 70s (which features the bulk of the exhibits).
The museum does a wonderful job of looking at the social, political, and economic aspects of the movement, and breaks down all the key players and groups involved. In particular, it does a superb job in explaining all the different views and opinions of the major players. When we say the phrase "Civil Rights movement" is suggests that everyone involved was more or less in lockstep, and this museum shows that this is clearly not the case; Medgar Evers had different views than Malcolm X, who differed from Martin Luther King, Jr., who differed from the Black Panthers, etc.
The exhibits themselves are incredible, and features video footage, artifacts, and audio clips. I was particularly spellbound by the audio recording of John F. Kennedy talking to the governor of Mississippi about allowing a black student onto campus. It's a great study into federalism that is well worth your time.
The most chilling part of the exhibit is across the street at the boarding house where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot. The exhibits detail the motives behind the assassination and spend a great deal of time on the manhunt, which is riveting. To the museum's credit, it also addresses the issues of conspiracies, and brings up some interesting points of contention (although at the end of the day, you really can't avoid the fact it was Ray who did it). You can see the actual room where he prepared to snipe the civil rights leader, and it's hard not to get choked up when you notice the wreath laid at the door of Dr. King's room at the motel.
Memphis is a town of good food and good times, so take advantage of that. But it is required, REQUIRED, that you also allocate several hours to this museum. It's one of the best I've ever been to.
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