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Memphis key to Civil Rights movement

Memphis central to Civil Rights movement

"I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached in his "Mountaintop" speech.

It was the night of April 3, exactly one week before Opening Day of the 1968 Major League Baseball season. The next day would be his last.

King, after working on a Sunday sermon, stepped out of Room 306 onto a balcony and into martyrdom at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. A .30-06 rifle shot took his life, allegedly fired by assassin James Earl Ray.

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who died last Jan. 30, would go on to cast much doubt that her perpetually wiretapped husband had fallen simply to the whim of one irate individual who was never tried and who died in jail. Speculation of a larger plot remains, but whatever the reason, that is where a 39-year-old Southern Baptist minister was lost and an American legend and his movement lived on.

Today, the Lorraine is the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, an emotional and tangible mecca for the many who come there to learn more about a history of inequality and about an ongoing and inexorable force of change. The museum includes a fabulous historical overview of the American civil rights movement, ranging from the abolition of slavery to prevalent themes.

It has honored and welcomed dignitaries and celebrities such as past and present U.S. presidents, U2's Bono, Oprah Winfrey, entertainers, athletes and many more. Now it will receive even more regular attention and awareness through an association with Major League Baseball, which is announcing the introduction of an annual Civil Rights Game in Memphis -- an exhibition that will be played for the first time next March between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians.

To grasp the full impact that this museum has on those who pass through it, one must see it in person. But for an indication, just consider these two typical comments by the many who have signed the institution's online guestbook:

• "We are educators from Florida (with) 75 years of experience between us. Each time we visit this place, our lives are changed and the quality of education is born anew within us. We leave with Dr. King's words resounding in our hearts: 'Free At Last, Free At Last, Thank God Almighty I'm Free At Last'...We're Free!! Thank Ya', We're Free!!"

• "I must, from time to time travel to Memphis to be at the Lorraine. It pumps me with much needed energy. Bless Dr. King. We must keep the memories alive. White America wants to forget and many in black America aren't teaching their children. Shame on all of us. What humankind forgets is what must be relived."

The museum is actually built around the Lorraine. The motel remained open following King's assassination until it was foreclosed in 1982. The owner, Walter Lane Bailey, had kept a couple of rooms as a shrine to King and to Bailey's wife, Lorraine, who died of a brain hemorrhage several hours after King was shot.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation purchased the property at auction in December of that year. Construction of the museum began in 1987, and the National Civil Rights Museum opened its doors to visitors on Sept. 28, 1991. To mark the 11th anniversary of that opening, an $11 million expansion project entitled "Exploring the Legacy" opened. It added 12,800-square-feet of exhibition space and connected the main campus of the museum to the Young and Morrow Building and the former rooming house at 418 South Main St., where Ray allegedly fired his rifle.

King was in Memphis at the time of the assassination to support black sanitation workers of a local union that had been on strike for higher wages and better treatment, and to give the "Mountaintop" speech. Like the civil rights movement in general, King's legacy is a centerpiece of the museum but only part of the story.

The exhibits trace the arrival of African slaves in the English colonies in North America, and the efforts to end bondage and then inequality. It is the story of: Nat Turner (1800-31), who organized one of the most famous slave revolts in North America; Dred Scott (1795-1858), who sued for his freedom in a Missouri court; Harriet Tubman (1821-1913) and her Underground Railroad; Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) and Rosa Parks (1913-2005), who refused to give up their seats on public transportation; Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and his Emancipation Proclamation; and many more.

Include a second baseman named Jackie Robinson on that list, too. He broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.

The civil rights movement took shape far and wide, from Little Rock, Ark.; to Montgomery and Selma, Ala.; to Atlanta, where King grew to prominence and where the King Center remains as another focal point for civil rights education.

But Memphis is a fitting regional hub for the place of so much turbulence, so much self-sacrifice and so much of the struggle that continues to this day.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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