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The Nation’s
Struggle For Its Soul


"Even if it had been poor white workers, [Martin Luther] King would have done the same thing. That’s just the kind of person he was. He stopped what he was doin’. He was planning this big march to Washington. All his staff thought it was outrageous of him to stop and come to Memphis. But he went where he was needed, where he could help poor people."

Taylor Rogers, a leader of the 1968
Memphis sanitation workers strike
The exhibition on the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike at the National Civil Rights Museum
The exhibition on the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. The museum is located in the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated while in Memphis to assist the strikers.

Nearly 32 years ago, on April 4, 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennessee to assist striking sanitation workers. The African-American workers had been on strike for weeks. The mayor obstinately refused to talk with the union. The National Guard had been called out.

Following King’s murder, more than 20,000 from all over the country marched silently through the city’s streets. Political pressure forced the city administration to recognize the union and sign a contract 64 days after the strike began.

The story of the sanitation workers’ strike is told by a permanent exhibition at the National Civil Rights Museum, located, appropriately, in Memphis — in the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. King’s assassination.

When the museum opened in 1991, studies showed that less than one-third of Americans had firsthand memories of the events of the 1950s and 1960s, the most active years of the civil rights movement. As the first and only comprehensive overview of the civil rights movement in exhibit form, the National Civil Rights Museum is an attempt to keep those events in historical perspective and provide a focus of remembrance.

Visitors experience the sights, sounds and emotions of the movement through its exhibits and programs.

The museum presents a time-line of civil rights struggle relating to African-Americans and concentrating on the major events of the 1950s and 1960s. Exhibits include the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the ensuing battle in Little Rock, Ark., for desegregation; the 1963 March on Washington, Student Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides; and much more.

The museum houses more than 10,000 square feet of permanent exhibits and a gallery with changing exhibits.

Guided tours are available, although audio headset units provide a one-hour tour program.


It’s possible to visit the museum without traveling to Memphis. The National Civil Rights Museum boasts an interactive virtual museum on-line (at, which provides an overview of the struggle for racial equality. It’s an opportunity to learn more about well-known historical figures like Frederick Douglass and John Brown, as well as others who made their mark on history.

For example, there was young Sarah C. Roberts, who sued the City of Boston in the 1840s for the right to attend school with white children. The courts ruled against her.

The civil rights story is about the United States struggling for its soul — trying to determine just how serious is its commitment to democracy. It’s a story filled with courage, tragedy, the heartbreak of lost opportunities and sacrifice.


Visiting the museum on-line, one is reminded how segregation and the loss of voting rights took place not right away, but some 30 years after the end of the Civil War, once the federal government ended its commitment to Reconstruction. (The federal troops removed from the South were used against workers in the 1877 railroad strike.) The museum might have pointed out is that those attacks on democracy took place, not coincidentally, as poor whites and black farmers united during the 1890s in the Populist Party. The rich could not tolerate this threat to their power, and moved legally (with segregation) and illegally (through election fraud, murder and harassment) to deny African-Americans their democratic rights and smash the unity of the poor.

In addition to the exhibit on the sanitation workers’ strike, the National Civil Rights Museum also has a permanent exhibition on A. Philip Randolph and the formation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at 450 Mulberry Street in Memphis. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. The museum is closed on Tuesday. The admission is $6, $4 for children aged 4-17, $5 for seniors and for college students.

More information is available by visiting the museum’s web site or by calling 901-521-9699.

(The quote from Taylor Rogers comes from the new book by Michael Honey, Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle, published by the University of California Press.)

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