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My District: Is Home to the National Civil Rights Museum

The historic memorial draws visitors to the thriving live music and barbecue culture of Memphis.

By Nora Caley  |  February 13, 2024
Justin Pearson Tennessee
Raumesh Akbari Tennessee

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., lives in the former Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The site is far more than a memorial, though: It is a cultural institution whose mission is to share lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement.

The Lorraine stopped housing guests in 1988 and the building reopened as a museum three years later. The exhibitions include Room 306, where King spent his final hours; a bus with audio that tells the story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott; and an original lunch counter with video and audio describing the sit-in protests against segregation. The complex also includes vehicles such as a sanitation truck (King had come to Memphis to support AFSCME sanitation workers) and a replica of a burned Freedom Riders bus. Renovations in 2013 and ’14 added films, oral histories and interactive media.

We caught up with Sen. Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-District 29) and Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D-District 86) to talk about the museum, where Akbari also serves on the board of directors.

Black History Month

For Black History Month, we talked with Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson to update this My District installment from 2022. Pearson won a special election to succeed Rep. Barbara Cooper, who died in October 2022. Read more about Black History Month.

What does the National Civil Rights Museum mean for your district?

Akbari: The National Civil Rights Museum is an absolute treasure for the city of Memphis. It’s a destination with immense historical value, real-life lessons and emotional weight. The museum is also a magnet for tourism. Before the pandemic hit, the museum was attracting more than 300,000 visitors a year and showing growth. The staff has done an incredible job adjusting to our new reality without compromising the visitor experience, and we’re beginning to see more and more people come back or tour for the first time.

Pearson: The National Civil Rights Museum is a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, and it is a monument to the movement for justice and democracy in America led by Black people throughout its history. We remember it was the site of one of the worst assassinations in the 20th century, and it is a place of resurrection of the movement for people oppressed and communities that are in desperate need of the ideals of the 1960s and the 1860s striving for freedom.

It's a beacon for us for remembrance. It serves as a conduit of history and past injustice, for the fight against oppression then and the fight against oppression now for all of us, Black, brown, Indigenous and poor folk.

What is your favorite exhibit at the museum?

Akbari: The curators at the museum have built an immersive visitor experience that tells the story of African Americans, beginning with the sins of slavery through the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, leading into the challenges we still face today. It’s incredibly difficult to pick an absolute favorite spot on the tour because the museum does such a great job of putting you in the moment with its exhibits, like the lunch counter sit-ins and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But it’s truly impossible to match the energy you feel when you walk into Dr. King’s hotel room. It touches your heart in ways you don’t expect as you think about his life and death, his sacrifice and legacy.

Pearson: I have visited the museum multiple times and taken guests. Going to visit the area where Dr. King was the night before, and where he had a pillow fight with his colleagues, grown men, you realize the humanity of the larger-than-life figure and the people with him, as they were fighting Mayor [Henry] Loeb and white supremacy. I no longer go see the room anymore. I went recently with (scholar and activist) Mark Lamont Hill, and I broke down crying.

Telling a holistic story about the Black experience in America is important, particularly in this moment where white supremacists are removing Black books from classrooms and intentionally changing the curriculum of school districts to ban the teaching of Black history in an honest way … We need places like the National Civil Rights Museum to tell the truth and to continue to be a place of organizing and of power-building for such a time as this.

What else is great about your district? What else should visitors see?

Akbari: The Memphis in May International Festival is an absolute must. It’s a monthlong event that features weekend concerts presented by the Beale Street Music Festival with the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest right in the middle! If you love live music and barbecue, there’s nothing better than Memphis in May.

Pearson: You can’t come to Memphis without experiencing our restaurant culture. There is Tom Lee Park, named after a Black man who rescued 32 passengers from an overturned ship (in 1925) in the mighty Mississippi. There is the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery of the photographer Dr. Ernest Withers Sr.’s archival photos. The Historic Clayborn Temple is being renovated, and the I am a Man Plaza is a memorial literally a stone’s throw from the Ida B. Wells Plaza & Statue.

Our district is made up of extraordinary people. It is the honor of my life to be of service to it.

Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelancer.

“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to tell us about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events to fun facts only locals know.

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