I recently took my two children to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis. I wanted them to learn about social justice issues and it turns out this museum is the perfect place to do just that.
We talk some beforehand about the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so we can all be better prepared for our visit. As we walk up to the museum, the children notice the wreath on the railing of the Lorraine Motel. They also spy a photograph of the men on the balcony.
I tell them Dr. King and his friends were going to dinner when a shooter took his life. My 5-year-old immediately wants to know if King was a daddy. I tell her he left behind a wife and four children, and that it was a very sad time for the world.
“His family must have missed him,” she replies.
Since the museum is currently undergoing renovation, museum staff direct us across to the annex. This is the boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed before the shooting. Upon entering the building, there's a timeline that chronicles the slave trade of the 1600's to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's. The renovation won't be finished until January 2014, so our tickets include a discount coupon good for a return visit once the work is complete.
Even though only a portion of the museum is open right now, there's still a lot to see and learn. We watch a brief film that tells some of the significant stories of people who had an impact on the civil rights movement. Then we view a room that tells the story of Dr. King’s last days, and describes how he spent his time in Memphis during the sanitation strike of 1968.
The next area is the space in the boarding house where Ray rented a room. My children think it's strange to have a bathroom in a museum, but then we read about how the shooter may have taken aim from this spot.
From here on out, the children feel like they’re solving a mystery. They peer at a glass cabinet of evidence, and listen as touch screens help visitors learn more about each artifact. We spend a long time here.
Next, we file downstairs to view another film, near a wall of photographs showing the museum's Freedom Award winners. I am surprised my children want to see the film, and then spend more time asking me about the Freedom Award winners.
This is a good way to show children that people are still working to make the world a better place. It encourages them to be part of positive change. My children’s favorite part of the museum is the gift shop, where they each select a memento.
The last part of the visit is most poignant, and a relatively new feature of the museum. We retrace our steps to the Lorraine Motel, show museum staff our tickets, and are permitted access to the stairs and balcony. My children and I stand on the balcony in absolute silence. I have very boisterous kids, but they seem to know they’re on hallowed ground. As we approach Room 306, I feel the gravity of losing Dr. King.
My children peer into to the motel room to see where this American hero once worked and slept. As tears roll down my face, a gentle rain begins to fall. My 5-year-old takes my hand to comfort me, and says, “Mommy, I think the sky is crying, too.”
The National Civil Rights Museum is a Memphis treasure, and a wonderful tool for teaching the next generation how to move toward a more peaceful world.