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Today, the old motel tells a different story. It has metamorphosed into the National Civil Rights Museum. The former boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed and from where he fired the fatal shot is now the Legacy Building. The entrance is a timeline up until Dr. King's assassination and provides a detailed timeline of the movements of both Dr. King and James Earl Ray in the days leading up to the assassination until Ray's capture.

Part of the exhibit showing the slave ships

The focus of the museum is broader than just Dr. King's assassination. It tells the whole story of hatred and cruelty directed at African Americans but it also shows the progress of Civil Rights in our society. As you enter the museum, it takes you visually through the horrific Middle Atlantic Passage right up through the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president.

The bombed-out Greyhound bus

For me the most poignant exhibit was "We Are Prepared to Die" with its twisted and still smoking Greyhound Bus offering a glimpse of what the young Freedom riders faced in the 1960s. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) recruited hundreds of young men and women willing to put their lives at risk for freedom to ride public transportation regardless of race.

Rosa Parks exhibit

Another favorite of mine is the Rosa Parks exhibit. It had a very realistic replica of the bus that Rosa Parks rode in Montgomery. You can step on the bus to trigger the soundtrack about the Montgomery boycots and Dr. King's emergence as the leader of the African American struggle for their equality.(Click here for more about Rosa Parks)

Dr. King's room at the Lorraine Motel

The museum exhibit "King's Last Hours" shows where Dr. King stayed in Room 306. The room looks like a simple motel room rather than a milestone in the fight for equality among the races but it contains a lot of hidden meaning. Dr. King was staying at this particular motel because he was not welcome at most of the Memphis motels which had a strict segregation policy. The motel had served many of the Stax Records musicians (click here for more about Stax and Memphis's music history) including Ray Charles, Ethel Waters, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Lionel Hampton, The Staple Singers and Wilson Pickett.

The day before the assassination Dr. King made his prophetic "I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech where he foreshadowed his own assassination. "And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats... or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will."

The motel exterior

A wreath marks the place Dr. King was shot on the second floor balcony. Just below two vintage automobiles are parked. They are not the actual vehicles driven by Dr. King or his entourage but they set the time frame nicely. As you approach from he parking lot you feel you are stepping back in time to that fateful day.

 The old boarding house where James Earl Ray stayed is now The Legacy 

The museum opened in 1991 and closed temporarily in November of 2012 to facilitate a $27.5 million renovation. When it reopened in 2014, it offered 40 new films, oral histories and interactive media added to the original material. The museum has been featured on the History Channel and CNN and in USA Today. From tragedy has come a tragic tale well told at the Lorraine Motel. It is one museum every American should see.


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