Civil Rights Museum visit leaves vivid memories

February 23, 2019

The visit was rather appropriately timed as it came in February, during Black History Month.

But mind you, anytime is a proper time to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I learned that upon a trip to the site made last Sunday.

It was a riveting experience, and one that took time to reflect upon once completed. The museum was built at the former Lorraine Motel, a place which will forever hold a place in history because it was there that civil rights icon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the early evening hours of April 4, 1968.

The significance of its place in history can be felt before you even officially enter the museum. The entryway has been recreated to appear as it did on that fateful day, with the old motel sign in place and a few 1960s-era automobiles parked in front of the rooms King and his entourage occupied during their stay at a motel which was among the few that catered to black patrons in the South.

With the help of interactive elements, you find your eyes darting back and forth from room 306, the room King occupied and was standing in front of when he was shot, and the boardinghouse where James Earl Ray set up across the street to fire the bullet.

Be prepared for a several-hours stay once you enter the museum. The displays are mesmerizing, and are difficult to walk past without taking long moments for observation.

Like most people, my personal perspective took hold. With that mind, here are four takeaways, all with local angles, that still linger days after the trip is through.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson

Jackson would become one of the most famed figures in the civil rights movement, but was not well known in the spring of 1968. That changed when photos of the King assassination began to circulate throughout the country and world. Jackson was standing close to King when he was shot, and was among those who pointed in the direction of where the shots were fired from in the immediate aftermath.

I met Jackson in March 2002 when he came to speak at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Kankakee. Before he entered the church, Jackson was seated in a bus out front. The local media gathered at the bus door to interview him, and when being informed of our presence, you could hear Jackson proclaim in a booming voice: “Let the vultures in.’’

Despite the less than friendly greeting, a free-wheeling interview ensued. I hung around a bit after the rest of the group departed. Jackson and I exchanged small talk, and I told him my first recollection of him came in 1978, when Jackson blasted the Rolling Stones for derogatory lyrics included on their hit record “Some Girls.’’ He got a chuckle out of the memory.

John Seigenthaler

Seigenthaler is another man I met after he played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. In 1961, the Freedom Riders were traveling across the South in a bus and faced much opposition, including physical attacks, along the way. Seigenthaler, an aide for Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was summoned to join the riders in hopes they could make safe passage through Alabama.

Seigenthaler negotiated a truce with the Alabama governor, but the deal was reneged on, and Seigenthaler was among those beaten and knocked unconscious upon the riders’ entry into Montgomery.

Seigenthaler also was one of the most distinguished journalists of his time and spoke at a conference I attended in the Washington, D.C., area in 1999. Captivated by his story and reputation, I approached him after he spoke. He was friendly and engaging. I got a particular kick out of the mention he was once a neighbor of country music legend George Jones while living in Nashville.

After about 15 minutes, an aide informed Seigenthaler his ride to the airport had arrived. He slapped me on the back and said, “Nice talking to you, buddy, but I guess I gotta catch a plane.’’

Seigenthaler died in 2014. The moment I heard of his demise, I thought back to that chance encounter.

Springfield race riot of 1908

Between Aug. 14 and Aug. 16, 1908, an angry mob of 5,000 white Americans and European immigrants descended upon black residents of the Illinois state capital, angered by allegations two black men were responsible for the rape, attempted rape and murder of two white women.

By the time the violence came to a halt, 16 people were killed, and many homes and businesses were destroyed. A display at the museum chronicles the tragic event.

I never had heard of it until about 20 years ago. While attending a meeting of the Kankakee Branch of the NAACP, Theodis Pace told me of the incident and described how it was a catalyst behind the formation of the NAACP in 1909. Pace was the local NAACP president then, and remains so to this day.

Andrew “Rube’’ Foster

Foster was a famed baseball pitcher at the turn of the 20th century and a key figure in the formation of the Negro National League. Such leagues offered the only opportunity for black players as Major League Baseball enforced a ban which lasted until 1947.

Known as the “Father of Black Baseball,’’ there is a plaque recognizing Foster’s contributions at the museum. Unfortunately, Foster suffered from mental illness in his later years and died on Jan. 9, 1930, at the former Kankakee State Hospital, now known as Shapiro Developmental Center.

What parts of the National Civil Rights Museum would spur personal memories for you? A visit is the only way to find out. Memphis is within an eight-hour drive of Kankakee County, and it’s a rather convenient route, as a southward flight on Interstate 57 and Interstate 55 will put you there.