Though both museums were excellent, my memory of yesterday's visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is overshadowing my experience at Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute Friday. The museums shared a similar layout: teaching exhibits emphasized more than physical artifacts, keen use of technology to tell stories throughout, and a floorplan that led visitors to an emotional and historical climax. I guess in that climax, Memphis simply trumps Birmingham. The climax of one's visit to the former is a chance to see inside the motel room Dr. King spent his last hour in (meticulously preserved). The latter's climax, an excellent window out of which to view the park, business and government district, and church that where the fulcrums of the battles there in 1963.
The emotional thrill of seeing that solemn place in the Lorraine Motel was set up perfectly by an exquisite opening documentary. A tour of the NCRM begins with a 32-minute film that is part documentary, part witness statement. The film concentrates on explaining what brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968. The primary narrative is supplied by Rev. Kyles, one of two preachers who spent an hour in Dr. King's room right before his death. (The late Ralph Abernathy was the other.) Kyles was also standing beside Dr. King when he was shot. The documentary alternates between contemporary footage, interviews, and scenes of Rev. Kyles preaching today. What amazed me about the documentary was the way in which it began with such a clear and compelling historical mission: explaining why King was in Memphis. Yet it ended as a profound, loud, and righteous statement of Christian witness by Kyles. Increasingly the language and imagery of the documentary became spiritual, wrapping the audience in the passion of a sermon or prophecy. Moving doesn't come close to describing it.
My experience in that theater and then in the hotel room exhibit made me thankful that I could understand, historically and spiritually what was happening and what had happened. I've been privileged to read about that era, teach about that era, and grow in Christian churches. I feel like my experience at an inner-city church some time ago, Triumph Baptist in North Philadelphia, helped me understand the frequency at which Kyles and the documentary were working. I hope that over the passing of the years audience members will be able to fell and experience the moment like I (and, I think, most of the visitors with me) did yesterday.