Civil Rights History Lives Where King Was shot.(TRAVEL)

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Margaret Green, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

I climb the steps into the old city bus, choose a seat not quite halfway down the aisle and sit down. Almost immediately, I hear the driver tell me to move to the back.

I stay seated, and the driver repeats his command, in a firmer voice this time. I don't move, and his tone becomes more intimidating as he tells me I must move because he has people who need that seat. I feel a swelling fear and, though I know it's irrational, look to see how many rows of seats stand between me and the door.

My reaction is irrational because the "driver" on this bus is a lifesize statue, and the only other "passenger" is another statue, of a seated Rosa Parks. This particular bus has stopped permanently inside the National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis, Tenn.

It is, of course, part of the museum's exhibit on the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and '56, and for me, it is as educational as any of the printed explanations, photographs and enlarged newspaper headlines the museum uses to trace the history of the civil rights movement in America. It engages me emotionally.

The museum, built around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, has many ways of dramatizing its subject matter, including videos and tableaux of other landmark events. The most wrenching is the last stop in the chronologically arranged Voices of Struggle Gallery - but more about that later.

For me, the first slap of reality arrived as my husband, youngest son and I rode on a different bus, during a city tour. The old motel, with its aqua-colored doors and a '50s-style sign that spelled MOTEL with each red letter in a circle, had a nostalgic "Happy Days" aura - until more of the motel came into view and I saw the balcony of room 306, with its simple white wreath with red ribbons. A real man - not an icon from a history book or a TV documentary - was shot right there, on that innocuous-looking balcony.

When we returned later on our own, I expected that our visit would be informative for my husband and me but would be especially worthwhile for our son, then 16. Unlike his parents, who grew up in white neighborhoods and went to almost all-white schools, he grew up expecting to have a diverse group of classmates and friends, and he saw nothing remarkable about that. I hoped the museum would impress on him how much American society had changed in a relatively short time and what many people had had to endure to bring about that change.

He learned a lot, but I was the more deeply affected as I was introduced to people and incidents that were new to me and was reminded of others that had faded into hazy memory.

Starting with the Colonial period and slavery, the Voices of Struggle Gallery walks visitors through the history of blacks in America with displays on the people and events that preceded the bus boycott and many of the sit-ins, demonstrations, advances and setbacks that followed. Cutouts of historical figures and other design elements keep the presentations interesting, and artifacts such as a hooded Ku Klux Klan costume and an aged sign with arrows pointing to "White" and "Colored" restrooms keep it real - but I suspect most visitors, like me, find the modern-history scenes most compelling. …