The National Civil Rights Museum History Essay
The National Civil Rights Museum is a Museum that educates and enlightens people about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It depicts the truth about a time in American History where Black people were abused because of the color of their skin. The Museum shows the ugly truth about racism and its ravages on the African American Race. It begins by reminding us about the dark practice of slavery that existed in early America when Africans were brought over on slave ships and ends with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
My experiences of racism, expectations, surprises and expressions of the relevance of the Museum for our time are examined. Included is also a great deal of information from the Civil Rights Movement as it unfolded in the Museum. Martin Luther King's assassination is the culmination of the museum experience. The Museum is unique in that it is in the exact location of the assassination. No other Civil Rights Museum could have the impact as this one because of this.
Saturday, August 18, 2012 was my first time to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. I have always wanted to go but never seemed to find the time in the eight years that I have lived in Memphis. I have been very familiar with the history involved with Civil Rights Movement since I am old enough to remember a great deal of it. I was born in the early sixties and although Civil Rights had made great strides by that point it also was right in the middle of national unrest. I recall seeing the race riots on television as a small child. I was five years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and I can remember much of the anger and fear following his death. But as the years past and I grew older I didn't give much thought to the struggles of the black American. I lived in an idealistic world of my own making and it seemed from my perspective that everything was fine and that all the problems with civil rights were over (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
Integration was always part of my life and I spent my days in public school with all races and never thought their lives were any different from my own. In school every year during Black History Month we studied how slavery was abolished. We learned about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I wrongly assumed that the wrongs done to the Black people were over. I was not raised in a racist home and did not even realize that racism still existed until I was an adult! It is true most of my friends were white but no one ever spoke negatively of other races and everything seemed fine between us. I was oblivious to the many other issues that faced them in the economic realm but as I aged these issues became more apparent to me and I began to understand more of the problems that existed for other races. There were fewer opportunities for good jobs and for advancement in the corporate world, but these were things I would learn in time (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
As I prepared to go to the National Civil Rights Museum I was looking forward to the experience. I expected it to be fun, what I did not expect was the sorrow and depression that I felt and the disappointment in mankind that was created by a Holy God. I expected it to be interesting but I did not realize the intense anger that it would stir in my heart. I did not expect to feel such strong outrage and I was surprised by the deep emotions I experienced. It was all I could do to not burst into tears! I believe that it would be good for all Memphians to go to the museum as it would help them understand many of the problems that we face in our city (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
My expectations were very different from my actual experience. There was a film that was shown that went beyond my expectations. The museum was very professional, equipped with headphones that made the experience much more informative. The employees were nice and accommodating to the visitors. We were allowed to move at our own pace that kept us from feeling rushed (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
It was a good afternoon for a visit to the museum; although there was a crowd it was not too terribly crowded. We began our tour as President Lincoln signed into law on September 22, 1862 the Emancipation Proclamation and declared all slaves in rebel states to be free! It was a glorious and wonderful thing and it should have ended all the problems on January 1, 1863 when it was "supposed" to be instituted. However the South had other ideas and the Civil War was begun. The war delayed the process of freedom for four long years, had the south won, there would possibly still be slavery in America. The South has never easily let go of their traditions, good or bad (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the constitution of America and slavery was officially abolished. Unfortunately this did not guarantee the black man or any woman the right to vote. Five years later the fifteenth amendment was instituted which prohibited denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color or previous condition of servitude," meaning slavery. On a side note, this did not allow women the right to vote, that did not happen until 1920! And in 1871 the Civil Rights Act was signed by Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Benjamin Butler to protect the black man from the KKK, a white supremacist group who covered their bodies and heads with white sheets and would hang black men from trees and were also known for burning crosses in the yards of those who disagreed with them or did not do as they were told. They were vicious and deadly. It was passed by congress in 1875 and was signed by President Grant. The Act guaranteed that everyone was entitled to the same treatment in public accommodations and other places of public amusement and went further to specify a penalty of a 500 to 1000 dollar fine or 30 days to 1 year in prison. Unfortunately it was rarely enforced and then the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional on the basis that although the "Fourteenth Amendment" prohibited discrimination by the state, it did not prohibit discriminations by private individuals (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
The Civil Rights Movement seemed derailed, discrimination continued as usual with virtually no changes. It was obvious that the government was going to be able to do nothing to make a real difference. Blacks were excluded from public transport, public facilities, and better jobs, could not be on a jury, could not live in White neighborhoods, and had separate hospitals, prisons, orphanages, parks and swimming pools. Then in 1905 after being denied admittance to hotels in Buffalo, New York, a group of 29 business owners, teachers and clergy organized the Niagara Movement led by DuBois and Trotter took matter into their own hands and the Civil Rights movement was reignited. They wrote a manifesto that promised organized and determined action in the struggle for equality. Part of the manifesto stated "We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults." It demanded equal rights and opportunities very forcefully. This was the beginning of more individuals speaking out about what was wrong and how we needed to eradicate racism in America (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
During this time the nation was experiencing more and more unrest in this area but nothing was really changing. The laws that guaranteed equal rights were not being upheld by the whites that were in control of the law making. There was still extreme behavior for even a white man to speak to a white woman. In 1955 in Mississippi a young 14 year old boy named Emit Till was beaten to death by a White mob because they said he was flirting with a White woman. In the trial of the brutal murder even in the face of overwhelming evidence the two men were acquitted by an all white jury of men. They later admitted to the murder but could not be retried for the crime. Crimes like this were a common occurrence in the south (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
At this time it was legal to have separate public facilities but in 1964 President Johnson signed in to law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Jim Crow Laws were abolished and segregation was outlawed. It was ruled that separate but equal was not really equal. However, things did not change once again. It seemed that nothing ever would until a national outrage was sparked by a woman named Rosa Parks. She had had a very difficult day she boarded the city bus to go home in Montgomery Alabama. A White man got on after her and she was told to move to the back of the bus where Black people were supposed to sit if there was not room for Whites up front. When she refused to move to the back of the bus, the police was called and she was arrested. At this time there was a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. who was becoming more popular as a new and powerful leader for the Civil Rights Movement. He was very involved in starting a city bus boycott to protest against the discrimination of the city in Montgomery in response to Rosa Park's arrest and was arrested also. He remained strong in the face of his arrest and just became a stronger advocate against segregation. The boycott lasted thirteen months and ended with the Supreme Court ruling that segregation of public transport was illegal. It was a small step with much further to go but Martin Luther King Jr. was determined to continue and in a peaceful manner (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
MLK was becoming a common household name, loved by millions and also hated by millions. He traveled the United States wherever there was injustice. He organized peaceful prayer walks and marches. Virtually every city across the south was full of racial unrest as more and more people came forward to protest racism. There were sit-ins and hunger strikes as integration was being demanded in public schools and colleges. White Mobs burned buses and became more and more violent trying to stop the marches. Police used fire hoses for water blasting the crowds, bully clubs to beat protestors and even gas was dispersed among the crowds. It was dangerous to be a part of the Civil Rights movement! Although MLK was a supporter of peaceful resistance there were others who believed differently (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
Malcolm X was a person I did not know much about, I found out a great deal about him in the museum. Malcolm X was a leader of the "Black Panther Party" and was a fierce opponent of Martin Luther King's policy of non-violence. He advocated civil disobedience and taught black Americans should not see themselves as victims but should fight aggressively, meeting brutality with violence to maintain freedom and independence. All of this was a surprise to me but the larges surprise was why he called himself Malcolm X. He said he did not know what his last name really was since the slaves names were changed to their master's last name when they were brought over on slave ships and sold to wealthy white plantation owners. The last name X was chosen to express the loss of his identity through slavery. He was assassinated while giving a speech in N.Y. in 1964. He believed in black separatism. MLK in contrast believed that we should all live together equally with the color of skin never being an issue at all. (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18)
Another surprise was getting to meet the Reverend Kyles, who was a personal friend of Martin Luther King's and was with him on the balcony the day he was shot. Reverend Kyles narrated a wonderful movie about MLK's life and the day he died. I was very fortunate, he was at the museum the day I visited and I was able to get a picture with him. He is the last living witness to the assassination of Martin Luther King (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
The fight for equality continued at a great price. Many lives were lost and many more were beaten and abused. During the peaceful march from Montgomery to Selma for the right to vote, America watched and was horrified as innocent, peaceful protestors were attacked by state troopers and deputies dressed in riot uniforms on March 7, 1965. The newscasters spoke of the similarities to Nazi Germany during the war and all of America was outraged. On August 6, 1965 Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed the right to vote to all people. President John F. Kennedy had already been assassinated in 1963, many believe for his stand on Civil Rights. He had promised to end racial discrimination and had appointed Blacks to many federal positions (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
Assassination of MLK
Things were actually beginning to change; forced integration was taking place in schools all across America and the law was finally upholding the constitution in many areas. Times were changing and white supremacists were very upset and very dangerous. In 1968 Memphis Tennessee was experiencing a sanitation strike by their garbage men. The wages were so low they could barely feed their families. There were only Black men on the payroll and there had never been a White garbage man. They wore signs that said "I am a Man" because they felt as though they were being treated like animals. It was decided as the strike lingered and garbage piled up in the streets that it was time to call Martin Luther King Jr. He was needed because the city was refusing to answer the demands of the sanitation workers. It was April when he arrived in the city. He stayed at the Lorraine Hotel, one of the few hotels in the city that welcomed blacks. He preached on the evening of April 3rd at the Mason Temple, the World Headquarters of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis. It was a powerful message where he spoke of his mountain top experience. He said there were difficult days ahead, but he didn't mind, he was thanking God for allowing him to live in such interesting days. He said God had allowed him to go to the mountain top and he had already seen the Promised Land. He was so emotionally exhausted after that message he could barely stand (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
The next morning he got up and had his breakfast and stepped out on the balcony of the hotel. A shot rang out and Martin Luther King Jr. fell to the ground and died before the ambulance could get there. It was a sad and dark day for America. We had lost a treasure, hopelessness, grief and confusion washed over everyone. The country erupted in violence, with rioting in the streets. Shops were destroyed and people were killed in reaction to the loss of MLK. It was very sad and it was scary. But in contrast to the fiery turbulence taking place all throughout the United States, peace prevailed in Memphis. This was an indication that local leader's appeals for calm had made a difference. Those that knew him wanted to honor him with peace because it was his desire and his teaching. He was often distraught because during his peaceful marches violence would erupt and he would be blamed for inciting the violence. This was never the case, he wanted to change things but through peaceful avenues. There has never been another man like him (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
The museum is a wonderful place. It was very educational. I believe that it is a great asset to our city and should help our city experience racial reconciliation. When you go through the museum and see the wrong that was done and how much was sorrow and pain was experienced during the Civil Rights Movement, it should draw all races together to make sure that nothing like this ever could happen again. Martin Luther King was about peace and reconciliation, the greatest honor we could give to him is to love each other. In his "I have a dream speech" he said "I have a dream one day that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." This is my prayer as well. I do pray that prejudice and racism would be non-existent in our city, country and our world! This would honor Martin Luther King Jr. and even more importantly would honor God (Civil Rights Museum, 2012, 8, 18).
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