National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

Terri Lee Freeman

President, National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

National Civil Rights Museum

450 Mulberry St, Memphis, TN 38103, United States

National Medal for Museum and Library Service 2019


MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here?



On April 4, 2018 the National Civil Rights Museum conducted an international commemoration of the of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was the golden anniversary of his assassination. It was a moment to remember, reflect, and look forward. The commemorative events were set in motion in 2016. It was very important that we honor the history, the man, and the many foot soldiers that worked with King, as well as celebrate his legacy by acknowledging those currently carrying the mantle for equity, justice, and freedom. We wanted to present a commemoration that would connect the past to the present. And we wanted to introduce participants to the King not often seen or discussed. The King who reprimanded our society as protecting three evils – racism, capitalism and militarism.

We chose the theme, “Where Do We Go From Here?” which was the title of Dr. King’s final book. For us, it captured the relevance of the man and the movement. The year-long commemoration began on April 4, 2017, on the 50th anniversary of his Beyond Vietnam speech. During the year, we engaged youth, scholars and faith leaders to develop programming for the community that reflected his essence while focusing on our present-day community issues, most of which were outlined by King in his book.

Working in partnership with a Memphis-based youth serving organization and the International Sites of Conscience, we hosted a youth conference that allowed youth to talk about the most pressing issues facing them as well as methods of organizing to create positive social change. Additionally, we hosted a poetry slam for ages 13 – 35 where spoken word artists used the theme “Where Do We Go From Here?” as the basis for their creative pieces. Cash awards ranging from $750 to $1,500 were distributed to 6 winners in the three age categories.
Communities of faith throughout the Mid-South Region and beyond were mobilized to present a series of forums called Moral Mondays, patterned after Rev. William Barber’s famed gatherings in North Carolina. Four Moral Monday’s were hosted. Each included a meal, a guest speaker or panelists with an emphasis on poverty. To support these events, the Museum commissioned a study, from the University of Memphis, on poverty in Shelby County Tennessee (Memphis is included in this county) over 50 years. The data showed some progress, but it confirmed that progress has been slow and that over the 50-year time frame African Americans have consistently earned 50% of the income of Whites. The challenge to the participants was to eliminate these inequities over the course of the next 50 years.

The involvement of scholars was central to our commemoration. A national committee of scholars was established. They were invited to submit essays on the six pillars identified in King’s narrative – education, poverty, jobs, housing, justice, and peace. The essays were posted on our website. And we provided people with tangible activities they could complete with our 50 Weeks of Action posts, which analyzed an issue or concept and then provided suggestions for action for both adults and youth


The commemoration culminated in a two-day symposium, April 2 3, 2018, hosted in partnership with the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. A collection of national thought leaders presented to hundreds of participants on issues of criminal justice, poverty, education, and labor.

But the main event was a day of reflection and commemoration 50 years after Dr. King’s untimely assassination on April 4, 2018. We unveiled a self-curated exhibit entitled “King A Legacy Remembered” which centered Mrs. Coretta Scott King as the architect of the King legacy. The day included performances, speakers, spoken word artists, and those who marched with Dr. King. The more than 30,000 spectators listened, as they stood in the courtyard of the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, to hear the timely messages from Rev. James Lawson, Congressman John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young and Rev. Jessie L. Jackson, to name just a few. At 6:01 p.m., at the exact time of the fateful shot that killed Dr. King we had a simultaneous bellringing. The bell from Clayborn Temple, the church which was the organizing base for the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, was moved to the courtyard and struck 39 times for each year of Dr. King’s life. The bell ringing was both a national and international event with 400 sites participating at the appointed time. This solemn action closed out the events in the courtyard at the Museum.

But the commemoration continued with one final event – An Evening of Storytelling. This ticketed event paired the icons of the movement with new movement makers reflecting contemporary movements for equity and justice.


These events had a media reach of over 5.04 billion, with 3,668 TV hits; 343 radio hits; and 1,717 print and online hits.

The National Civil Rights Museum stands as a monument to the tenacious, courageous, and persistent (s)heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement. But we are more than a Museum. We are a new public square that challenges the continuing inequities of our society and encourages everyone to get involved and do something to help achieve Dr. King’s dream of a Beloved Community become a reality. MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here? Was just a beginning.


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