Mission of National Civil Rights Museum Questioned

Sign for the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. i

The National Civil Rights Museum is housed at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. Mike Brown/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Brown/Getty Images
Sign for the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

The National Civil Rights Museum is housed at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.

Mike Brown/Getty Images
Visitors walk by a reconstruction of King's hotel room. i

Visitors walk by a reconstruction of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying the night he was shot on a balcony. Mike Brown/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Brown/Getty Images
Visitors walk by a reconstruction of King's hotel room.

Visitors walk by a reconstruction of Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying the night he was shot on a balcony.

Mike Brown/Getty Images
An exhibit of protest signs at the National Civil Rights Museum. i

An exhibit of protest signs at the National Civil Rights Museum. Mike Brown/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Brown/Getty Images
An exhibit of protest signs at the National Civil Rights Museum.

An exhibit of protest signs at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Mike Brown/Getty Images

Nearly 40 years after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the museum at the site of his assassination is facing major criticism from some in Memphis, Tenn. Critics say that the board that runs the National Civil Rights Museum and its corporate members have too much power, and some community members feel shut out.

On the outside, the two-storey Lorraine Motel remains the same as it did the day in 1968 when King was shot. The linen curtains still shift in the second-floor windows and the neon sign still blinks out front. But everything inside has been gutted and remodeled as exhibit space for the National Civil Rights Museum — except Room 306, where King was staying the night of his murder.

Room 306 has been reconstructed to look just as it did that night. There are glasses and a milk carton, and the bed is partially made up.

Questioning the Board's Makeup

Museum director Beverly Robertson says around 2 million people have streamed past the glass wall of Room 306 since the museum opened 16 years ago. She's a staunch defender against critics who complain the board of the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation is too corporate and too white.

D'Army Bailey, a circuit court judge, museum founder and ousted president, however, takes issue with the board's racial dynamics.

"We've got corporate people on the board of this museum. But if you look at the boards of their own corporations, you will find probably few, if any, blacks. So it's a disconnect," she says.

When the private foundation asked the state recently to extend its lease for 50 years rent-free, Bailey and others fought the move. The state, the group complained, was on the verge of giving the site away to a virtually private group with too few representatives from the civil rights movement, too many corporate voices and uneven abilities in handling maintenance and programming.

Bailey also has a different vision for the museum.

"It shouldn't just be history under glass," she says. "I didn't envision that this would be a facility where people could look at the past. My idea in building that museum was to provide a facility that would incite and spur people to action."

Bailey sees the control of the museum as an issue of self-determination, but not everyone agrees with that interpretation.

Activist Institution or History Lesson?

Gregory Duckett is on the board of the foundation and an executive with Baptist Memorial Health Care Systems. He says there has been debate about whether the museum should be an activist institution or a more passive preserver of history.

"Where I find my frustration is when one tries to criticize the museum for something it never was designed to be," he says, "and it was never designed to be an activist institution."

Museum director Robertson says many members of the museum board are, in fact, heirs to King's legacy.

"A lot of people on our board who have jobs in corporate America are African Americans who come from the 'hood, who have just been successful and are continuing to be successful in their lives," she says. "And there is nothing wrong with that."

Both Robertson and Duckett concede that the board could have done a better job reaching out to the community, and it looks like they are getting a second chance. A new agreement with the state will allow the museum a 20-year lease. But state officials will take over major maintenance, and the museum's board must agree to hold annual public meetings and increase its African-American membership.

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