From all over the world, they come to the National Civil Rights Museum in Downtown Memphis – pilgrims in search of truth, confrontation, reconciliation, peace, empowerment and to touch, first-hand, “the Black Experience” in America.
“This particular exhibit is a very special exhibit,” said Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer Faith Morris. “‘Outside the Lorraine’ is a love letter to all our guests who have visited the museum over the years. I have seen so many people I know in these pictures. We think everyone will enjoy this exhibit.”
A Friday (April 9) morning news conference introduced “Outside the Lorraine: A Photographic Journey to a Sacred Place” to news photographers and reporters on the eve of its official opening. The exhibit is a year-long affair, running from April 10, 2021 to April 4, 2022.
The photographer, David Katzenstein, visited the museum with his family in 2017. After exiting the building, he was struck by the pageantry occurring in the courtyard. Children, seniors, teens, college students. Katzenstein took out his camera and began to capture the drama and artistry of people either preparing to enter or exiting the museum.
Katzenstein is so excited about what story the photos captured that he reached out to exhibit designer and curator, Gay Feldman. They both spoke to the gathering before leading attendees on an actual tour of “Outside the Lorraine.”
“In the context of this present moment, with COVID-19 and the ‘woke’ movement of conscientious rejection of racism, the exhibit tells a collective story of harmonious diversity and humanity,” said Katzenstein. “Visitors will see people just like them. There is a wonderful message of inclusion as people gather in the courtyard.”
In more than 90 photos, Katzenstein captures the spectacle of reflection and emotion of museum visitors in the courtyard.
Some stare in wonder at the balcony of room 306, as if they were reliving the last moments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s chatting with friends before the fatal shots rang out.
People of every hue, women in hijabs, young African-American men sitting down along the curb, groups of school children “cheesing” for the shot, church groups sharing the experience – they all share the sacred space of the museum’s venerate courtyard.
“The exhibit offers the rare opportunity for our visitors to see themselves reflected in the artwork of one of our exhibitions,” said Dr. Noelle Trent, the director of Interpretation. ‘Outside the Lorraine’ is a ‘thank you’ to our visitors who have lovingly supported the museum over the last 30 years and emphasizes the beautiful array of humanity that energizes the courtyard and museum.”
Some of the subjects stare directly into Katzenstein’s lens. Others seem unaware that they are filling a photographer’s frame with a portrait or artistic creation of themselves.
There are many striking images that fuel the imagination and lead observers to wonder what the subject is thinking.
“African-American history is American history,” said Trent. “A precious moment in time is captured of family reunions, school trips and enrichment. Some look up at room 306, and they are hurt.
“Many are reflective as they walk through the courtyard. Whether they have already been inside the museum, or they have already toured and are just not ready to leave yet, there is a great humanness and color to the photos. They tell a story, and they raise some questions.”
There are striking and extraordinary scenes. One of the most arresting images is a group of elderly Asians. One of the women has a look of amazement with a hand pressed to her cheek. Is she, perhaps, remembering some tragedy of her own as she stands in the courtyard where Dr. King was struck down?
And then, there is the crowning jewel — a photo in the courtyard during the 50th anniversary commemoration of Dr. King’s April 4, 1968 assassination.
Thousands are packed into the pre-COVID event featuring inspirational choirs and memorable speeches. The photo is taken just after the bell tolls at the exact moment the civil rights leader was shot down.
Former soul singer and present-day pastor, Rev. Al Green sings Dr. King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord.” That is the program’s appointed end.
Some start to leave, but Green isn’t quite ready to go. Pandemonium ensues when Green leans into the mike and croons the first words to his iconic hit, “Love and happiness, something that’ll make you do wrong, make you do right.”
The stage is rushed by people running back over to the courtyard for a program that is clearly not over, yet.
Morris remembers that the next phase of the commemoration was starting in only two minutes, but the participants were lost in that happy crowd.
Since the museum opened in 1991, millions from around the globe have come. Scores of iconic celebrities, human rights activists, others have been honored. More than 90,000 school groups visit annually.
“The National Civil Rights Museum continues to be a mecca for peacemakers,” said Morris. “This exhibition of visitors photographed in the courtyard makes the museum, all the more, a place of memory, connection, and hope as we mark our 30th anniversary.”