Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Road Trip, Day 4, Pt. 2: National Civil Rights Museum

Assassin's Perch
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Comparing the historical significance of MLK and EP really puts a lot of things in perspective, not the least of which is how empty the National Civil Rights Museum felt in comparison with the hordes who visited Graceland the same morning. I felt no awe visiting Graceland or Sun Studio. Elvis' microphone was just a a microphone. The hole worn into the linoleum floor by Bill Black's bass peg was just a hole. Seeing the spot where Martin Luther King was killed, however, I felt something altogether different. Awe is too weak a word to describe the feeling, probably because what I felt was many strong feelings simultaneously -- rage, sadness, confusion, despair.

That said, I found the the museum as a whole to be one of the most profoundly disturbing places I have ever visited. It starts off alright, leading you through a series of life-sized dioramas recreating scenes from the Civil Rights Movement. While it deals with the movement's roots following the civil war leading up through WWII, the museum primarily concerns itself with highlights of the movement from 1954-1968. We see the bus (or a re-creation thereof) on which Rosa Parks sat. We see video of protesters being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by dogs. We see the remains of a Greyhound bus that had been blown up during the Freedom Rides. More disturbing is the re-creation of a lunch counter sit-in, complete with life-size clay figures of some of the original sitters. Behind them, a video shows the real-life sitters being beaten, spat upon, having cigarettes put out in their hair, and so on. We are meant to feel a palpable sense of racist hatred and we are asked to identify with the protesters' suffering. We do. How can we not? A discomfiting experience, to be sure, but not one that offended me or my sense of history. American racism is alive and well and ready to rear its ugly head the moment we forget the valuable lessons civil rights history affords.

How then are we to judge the final section of this otherwise useful and educational museum? Having stood nearly on the spot where Dr. King was murdered, we are sent across the street into another building. This, it turns out, is the building from which James Earl Ray shot MLK. After passing the funeral cart on which King's body was carried through the streets, we are taken upstairs to a re-creation of the bathroom from which Ray fired the fatal shot. We are then asked to stand a few feet over in a floor to ceiling window and to look directly across the street to the spot where MLK was shot. In other words, we are asked to stand in the shoes of the murderer. Why? Why should I, much less a child visiting this museum, be asked to stand in the shoes of a killer? Are we supposed to identify with James Earl Ray? Are we being accused of killing Dr. King ourselves? This positioning of the viewer is a highly unethical and irresponsible use of history. To make matters worse, the whole floor is dedicated to the unproven conspiracy to kill King. It proves nothing, but lays out a million clues leading nowhere, which creates even more confusion. By the time we view the final videos expounding on the successes of the movement and of many African-Americans in particular, it no longer matters. How can we celebrate their many successes in light of what we have just seen? Instead of marvelling at their triumphs, I left angry and confused. The message seemed to be that the civil rights movement had failed because MLK was shot. But I think MLK would be the first to say that the civil rights movement neither began nor ended with him. I recommend skipping the final act. You'll leave the building with a more accurate view of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, one that puts King's murder in the context of a movement larger than himself, and not the other way around.

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