The outside of the building is the facade of the Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Until you see the entrance to the museum, which opened in 1991, it looks like another forgotten business in a downtown that experienced decay.
But walking along the front of the hotel, the experience becomes unforgettable. Visitors outside tread past the bluish green doors of the hotel rooms with quiet reverence. Directly beneath room 306, and beneath the balcony where Dr. King was shot, rests the engraved words of Ralph David Abernathy in memorial to the fallen leader. A wreath hangs on the door of Room 306, which inside is preserved as it was on the day of the assassination.
Inside, the Lorraine is alive with an American story that had its roots from 1619, when slavery was already being practice and already being opposed. Dr. King dramatically advanced the causes of freedom and equality with great risk before he was shot to death on the balcony of the hotel. But the story didn't begin and end with him, and neither does the museum.
The men and women who took individual stands, and the people who formed coalitions throughout history that crossed racial, religious and gender boundaries are celebrated for a heroism far greater than the men in baseball usually celebrated on these Web pages.
It makes a visitor think. The Civil Rights Game may bring folks to Memphis for baseball, but a trip to the museum could provide something much more. The game will be broadcast live by ESPN and MLB.TV beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. MLB.TV will also feature a two-hour pregame show beginning at 3:30 p.m.
"Being able to play a professional sport is akin to being able to be elected to office, being able to have access to home ownership, being able to have an active voice and being able to participate in society," said Barbara Andrews, director of curatorial services for the museum. "So I think they're parallel stories. They're just different avocations and different applications of the story.
"But if you're a sports-minded person, it'll cause you to reflect. 'I wonder if this was always this way for me?'"
You walk through curved hallways at your own pace. But no matter how slowly the walk, the ride is wilder than any amusement park rollercoaster.
Especially hard-hitting is the second section of the tour.
President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, making slavery illegal. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from enacting laws that robbed citizens of equal protections, and the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited states from denying the right to vote based on race. Reconstruction brought the African American into the political arena, with many people who would have been subject to slavery becoming elected officials in Southern states.
But the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations and grandfathering laws that turned back the progress on voting rights scuttled much of the progress. How quickly things changed.
The route through the museum brings plenty of opportunities for the mind to take the trip. Look at it from Booker T. Washington's point of view of parallel progress. Then again. How about W.E.B. DuBois' advocacy of civil disobedience to force an equal, rather than parallel society? Various coalitions brought civil rights to the forefront, even though they were opposed with veiled accusations of anti-Americanism.
The museum brings out the stories not only of the recognized leaders, but the common citizens that became American heroes.
Rosa Parks would not give up her seat, even though three African American passengers in the same row gave up theirs, as was law and custom at the time. College students, well-dressed and prepared for violence but vowing not to retaliate, brought their books to "whites only" lunch counters and studied at the risk of insults, having cigarette butts sprinkled onto their hair and, of course, violence. School children were often subjected to arrests and violence.
"These are everyday people who could have been my aunt, or mother or father, or next-door neighbor walked the line," Andrews said. "It makes you think, 'Could I have done that?'"
Could I have done that? What a haunting question, especially at the part of the museum where they've reconstructed the jail in which Dr. King was confined for leading a non-violent march in Birmingham, only for protesters to be attacked by police using dogs and powerful fire hoses.
On a wall opposite the jail display is posted Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Disappointed by some news articles in which some clergy accused King of fostering an "unwise and untimely" demonstration and praised the Birmingham police, King eloquently offered a rebuttal.
In the cell, which had a hard bed almost directly against a toilet, he wrote in the margins of newspapers and on various paper scraps. The powerful words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," are highlighted in the text on the wall.
Such grace and eloquence doesn't often flow, even if the writer is using a computer. Yet, Dr. King produced it under the most trying of circumstances.
The March On Washington and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, glorious points of the civil rights movement, are chronicled in great detail. But winding out of the hallway from that exhibit, one heads toward the upper floor.
Over a balcony is an exhibit depicting the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis. With trash piling beneath their feet, black men that had been called "boy" all their lives are depicted with signs, simply stating, "I Am A Man." Dr. King stepped into this fray, fighting for more than sanitation and risking his life.
It's difficult to step up to Room 306 without shaking. A recording of Mahalia Jackson singing the hymn, "Precious Lord," which she sang at the funeral, plays hauntingly. The slightly unmade bed, the cups and saucers, the rotary phone and full ashtray depict a room full of life, just moments before a haunting death.
There is so much more to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Across the street at the site of the old Young/Morrow Boarding House, where witnesses said the shot originated, is an expansion that asks hard questions about where the civil rights movement has gone in the years after Dr. King's death and where it is heading today.
"The expansion to the museum has an area called Vigilance," Andrews said. "And there are about 10 items in which people can become engaged, challenges still in our society."
Could I have done that? The question is haunting, partly because there is no way we can answer that, partly because folks who didn't experience having to fight for basic rights may have a hard time believing they'll find the right answer the way the pioneers of civil rights did.
Thank goodness for those rights, and the opportunity for vigilance.