A playful Martin Luther King, Jr., was in high spirits just minutes before his assassination. I never knew this touching detail until I took my first trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
"What people don't understand," says friend and Memphis pastor Samuel "Billy" Kyles, "is that Martin had preached himself through the fear of death at the Mason Temple the night before." Reverend Kyles knows this firsthand. He remembers standing with Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when the shots rang out.
"I often wondered why I was there at that moment," says Reverend Kyles. "But I've come to realize that every crucifixion needs a witness."
Keeping the Faith
Today, the historic landmark and motel where the American "dreamer" spoke his final words tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement through thought-provoking exhibits. During an audio tour, I am transported from an auction block in a slaveholding state to the exact spot where Dr. King spent his last moments. Voices shouting to protest Jim Crow laws ring crystal clear in my ears too. It's as if I've been jolted awake. Apparently I'm not alone in feeling the power of this place.
"I've taken at least six different Nobel Peace Prize winners through this museum," says Reverend Kyles, "and all the reactions are the same. President Mandela leaned over to me and said, ‘Brother Kyles, people say I'm not supposed to be emotional, but this is where Martin died.' With all that Mandela had been through, he wept openly and said that when times got tough for him in prison he would remember the Civil Rights Movement here in America. It gave him strength."
In a city bus on display, I take a seat beside a statue of Rosa Parks and listen as the driver's voice harshly and repeatedly tells us to move to the back. She doesn't. And neither do I.
"This museum isn't just about Martin," says Reverend Kyles. "It's about the entire movement―not just famous people but ordinary people as well. God uses ordinary individuals to bring about his divine will. That's a marvelous thing."
National Civil Rights Museum: 450 Mulberry Street, Memphis, TN 38103; www.civilrightsmuseum.org or (901) 521-9699.
The 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King will be recognized officially on April 4. Leading up to this date, the museum has planned numerous special exhibits and living-history tours.
"The Faces of Freedom" is from the February 2008 issue of Southern Living.