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Continuing the Dream

The National Civil Rights Museum expands its facilities -- and its horizons.



The view from Martin Luther King’s room at the Lorraine Motel
We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We've got to see it through. ...

And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. ...

Well, I don't know what will happen now. ... But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

-- from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Mountaintop" speech, April 3, 1968

hen the dreamer is killed, does the dream die as well?

The National Civil Rights Museum will get an opportunity to answer that frequently asked question with the opening of its expansion project on Saturday, September 28th. The $11 million project, called "Exploring the Legacy," will allow the museum to explore the events that followed King's assassination.

"The expansion is a wonderful opportunity for us to extend the message and the lessons of the movement beyond civil rights to human rights," says museum executive director Beverly Robertson. "The existing museum begins to chronicle the story of the civil rights movement from the earliest days of the freedom struggles in the 1600s to the pivotal years of the movement and the struggle to the death of Dr. King in 1968. People who come here really ask us three questions: Where did the shot come from? What really happened after Dr. King was killed? And what has been the international impact of the movement? So we are expanding to address those questions."

The expansion will add almost 13,000 square feet to the existing museum, including two additional buildings connected by a tunnel. The project connects the main campus of the museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel, the site of King's assassination, with the Young and Morrow Building and the former boardinghouse on Main Street, from which James Earl Ray allegedly fired the fatal shots. Visitors will be taken into the boardinghouse through a corridor that chronicles the events immediately after King's assassination. Photos of the funeral procession, the organization of the Poor People's Campaign, and an audio recording of King's "Mountaintop" speech provide the final reminders of his leadership.

Once inside, the exhibit leads to Ray's room and bathroom -- recreated as it would have looked in 1968 -- and a replica of the Ford Mustang allegedly used as the getaway car.

"In addition to the events in Memphis, there will be a panel explaining what was happening in the country," says Robertson. "People forget that the Vietnam War was raging in this country, the civil rights movement was in some of its peak days, and there were surveillance issues with the FBI and CIA."

The view from James Earl Ray’s boardinghouse window
Information from the House of Representatives select committee's investigation, the King family's investigation, and the Justice Department's reinvestigation opened by Janet Reno explore evidentiary material and eyewitness testimony and will allow visitors to draw their own conclusions about the assassination.

The expansion also issues a call to action for young visitors by showing them their place in the human rights movement and its evolution from civil rights. "We begin to connect young people to the movement in a compelling way through a series of exhibit panels which speak to why people struggled, fought, bled, and died," says Robertson. "We address legislation that has been passed which affords some of the freedoms that we enjoy. The interactive panels deal with issues like freedom, choice, and achievement. [The exhibit] reengages young people to realize that not only do they stand on shoulders, they are challenged to make something of their lives because there are people who are coming after them who are depending on them."

The civil rights movement's impact on Memphis and on world events rounds out the exhibit. The lives of international leaders such as Nelson Mandela are presented in interactive panels.

The remainder of expansion space includes a new gift shop on Main Street and a park/promenade. The existing gift shop in the main museum will be converted into a coffeeshop, and the museum will now be a stop on the trolley line.

"When visitors leave here, we want them to understand that the movement was a movement of common everyday people doing extraordinary things. Each of us is challenged to make a place for ourselves in history by challenging wrongs when we see them," says Robertson. "There are still atrocities that exist today. There are miles to go before we sleep."

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