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Immortal Moments at Civil Rights Sites

Lorraine Motel

Memphis, Tennessee

From the exterior, the Lorraine Motel looks much the same as it did on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. stepped outside of Room 306 onto the motel balcony and into the early evening dusk. Today, a red-and-white funeral wreath hangs on the railing, marking the spot where King fell after shots rang out from the boardinghouse across the street.

Inside, visitors make their way through the National Civil Rights Museum galleries, eventually reaching the “I Am a Man” exhibit that tells how King came to Memphis to support sanitation workers in their strike demanding equal wages and better benefits.

Where walls once stood, glass windows now allow guests to look into the preserved rooms where King and other civil rights leaders often stayed when they visited Memphis. On the left is Room 307, and on the right is Room 306, where, as he was stepping outside, King said his last words. He asked musician Ben Branch to play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at that evening’s event.

When guests see the rooms, “it pushes some buttons for folks,” said Faith Morris, chief marketing and external affairs officer for the museum. “Many are honestly wanting to come to see where his final moments were.”

Visitors can see through the rooms to the window, to the balcony and beyond to the boardinghouse where assassin James Earl Ray was likely standing in the bathtub when he shot King. Known as the Legacy Building, the boardinghouse is also part of the museum, and exhibits cover the investigation, the case against Ray and the ensuing conspiracy theories.

Edmund Pettus Bridge

Selma, Alabama

After months of trying to register black voters in the county seat of Selma, Alabama, to no avail, activists took to the streets. When Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in the city in early 1965 to participate in peaceful demonstrations, he and thousands of other protestors were arrested.

“This is Selma, Alabama. There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls,” King wrote to the New York Times.

Activists decided to take their cause to the state capital with a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. On the morning of March 7, 1965, hundreds of demonstrators reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to find a wall of state troopers and sheriff’s deputies, some on horseback. As the nonviolent protestors tried to move forward, troopers knocked them down, released tear gas and beat them with bullwhips, billy clubs and rubber tubing wrapped with barbed wire.

The violent attack, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, was broadcast around the nation, prompting thousands of supporters to flock to Selma. Two weeks after Bloody Sunday, King led the five-day march to the capital of Montgomery. The marches helped spur the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Today, people flock to Selma to walk across the bridge. At its base is a free interpretive center where visitors can explore exhibits and watch a film about the marches.

“I think that it is a pilgrimage,” said Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information. “It was such a pivotal point in the voting rights movement.”

People also congregate in Selma the first weekend of March for the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. On the Sunday of the festival, throngs of visitors gather to walk across the bridge to commemorate Bloody Sunday.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.