“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.
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 the 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-ins. 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 Rep. Barbara Ward Cooper (D-District 86) and Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-District 29) to talk about the museum, where Akbari also serves on the board of directors.
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.
Cooper: The citizens of my district see the National Civil Rights Museum as the epicenter of the civil rights movement. The tragedy of Dr. King’s death still resonates, and I am so proud of this museum honoring not only his life, but keeping alive the legacy of everyday people who are inspired by his mission and uphold his legacy.
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.
Cooper: My favorite is the Rosa Parks statue in the bus boycott exhibit. She was the mother of the civil rights movement, and she is re-created in such a powerful way.
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.
Cooper: You can take a nature walk in T.O. Fuller State Park. There is also the historic Boxtown neighborhood and Beale Street, which historically had many Black-owned businesses.
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelancer.