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I recently visited the (partially open) National Civil Rights Museum for the first time, and I was horrified.

 

Before entering the museum, I observed a woman on the corner of Mulberry Street sitting under an umbrella and surrounded by red-lettered signs that read, “Boycott the Civil Rights Museum” and “Stop Glorifying Death and Violence.”

 

I would soon learn that the woman — Jacqueline Smith — had been protesting in the very same spot for over 22 years. Had there been a crowd of protesters, I’d like to think that I would have stopped to talk to them before entering the museum, but most likely, I would have reacted just as I did: I ignored Smith and wrote her off as crazy. After all, who could object to a museum in honor of MLK?

 

Here are some of the things you can experience at the museum:

  • You can stand in the spot where James Earl Ray stood when he fired the shot that killed Dr. King.
  • You can examine the very room where James Earl Ray stayed the day he murdered Dr. King.
  • You can gawk at the evidence that led to James Earl Ray’s capture, including a pair of his underwear and the very gun he used to kill Dr. King.

 

In light of such “exhibits,” I believe the museum’s name is incredibly misleading. Yelp user “Deployed R.” says it best:

A better name for the museum would be, The Complete Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The museums [sic] entire focus is every detail of his death.

 

But “Deployed” and Smith didn’t register on my radar — I ignored their dissenting voices because of the hundreds of five-star reviews (689 five-star reviews on Trip Advisor alone, making it the site’s number one attraction in Memphis).

 

I left the National Civil Rights Museum feeling enraged and sick to my stomach, and wondering why so many others had endorsed the museum. I was reminded of the recent Newtown shooting, and the way the media flew in the face of recommendations from leading psychologists by obsessing over the killer in a 24-hour news cycle. Pundits blabbed endlessly about the killer’s past, his attire, and his choice of weapon — all while displaying a photo of his face so that by the end of the day, the formerly unknown boy became a celebrity. Dedicating entire rooms of exhibits to MLK’s assassin accomplishes the same thing: it turns James Earl Ray into some sick anti-hero for would-be killers.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a believer in non-violence, and I am sure he would be horrified to see how the National Civil Rights Museum displays his legacy right alongside James Earl Ray’s; visitors to the museum will learn more gory details about his assassination than they will learn about MLK himself. The Civil Rights Museum focuses far more on Dr. King’s death than on his life. This is a tragedy.

 

Furthermore, the Civil Rights movement is not only about the struggle of African Americans from 1955 to 1968. The OED defines “civil rights movement” as “any movement working for the civil rights of a particular group or minority.” Clearly, the term applies to people of all races, ethnicities, and genders who are still fighting for equal rights today. But the National Civil Rights Museum focuses only on the struggles of African Americans in the fifties and sixties.

 

After touring the museum, I went to speak with the woman I had ignored on my way in. She was standing on the corner, protesting alone despite the rainy, 40-degree weather. I apologized to her for the way I had initially written her off, and told her that I understood her mission and agreed with her completely. I told her I was ready to listen.

 

Smith told me that she was the last tenant of the Lorraine Motel, and that she had been protesting for the past two decades. She told me that visitors to the museum were almost exclusively tourists — she said that members of the Memphis community largely avoid the place out of respect for the memory of Dr. King.

 

Despite the fact that Smith has spent over 8,000 days of her life in a futile protest, she has not yet given up hope. “You go home, and you post this on Facebook,” she told me. “People need to know about this.”

 

While I only saw a portion of the museum (since it is currently undergoing renovations), I saw enough to understand why Jacqueline Smith has been protesting the place since January 12, 1988. You can read more about her by visiting her website, www.fulfillthedream.net.

 

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  █

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