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The future is taking shape at National Civil Rights Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum broke ground Tuesday morning on an extensive renovation project that will expand the exhibit space by 7,500 square feet.

National Civil Rights Museum President Dr. Russell Wigginton noted that more space will allow the museum to better convey the history and the continuing story of the fight for human rights.

“Renovations at the Legacy Building and Founders Park will allow us to be much more power in our messaging,” said Wigginton. “The potential for more educational and interactive opportunities for our visitors will be virtually limitless. We are excited about the inspiring and life-changing new exhibits we anticipate creating. This is a transformative moment in the museum’s history.”

Prior to the groundbreaking ceremony, a host of donors and dignitaries spoke briefly to the gathering of about 150. The May 15 event was staged under a tent on Mulberry Street.

With the ceremonial groundbreaking completed, the work now begins on major renovations at the National Civil Rights Museum. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

According to details of the expansion plan, the Legacy Building will be extended to the east bordering Mulberry Street. On the south, the structure will be lengthened right up to the main building.

Wigginton cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book title, “Where Do We Go From Here?” to frame the project announcement as both historic and transformative.

Mayor Jim Strickland applauded the two-year project.

“‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ is a great question,” said Strickland. “The National Civil Rights Museum has inspired transformative change in the lives of its visitors. Some very important conversations have taken place because of what people experience here. We appreciate the Civil Rights Museum for leading the way on this very important discussion about where we are headed from here.”

Architect Juan Self details the look of the National Civil Rights Museum’s future. (Photos: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Juan Self, founding principal of Self Tucker Architects, is heading up the project. The designer has been involved in every expansion and renovation since the museum opened in 1991.

“I am originally from the Mississippi Delta,” said Self. “I went to D.C., and later, came to Memphis. But I never imagined I would be here in this capacity. I have been involved with the museum – every expansion project and renovation from the very beginning, I have been there. It has been an honor. Why are we here? We are here because of this place. I have learned the power of place.”

Self characterized renovation plans as “top to bottom” refurbishments. 

Plans indicate that the Legacy Building will be expanded on the first floor to include digital exhibitions, a Freedom Award section, and exhibits on Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. The second-floor exhibitions will explore the Civil Rights Movement since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel, which the museum encompasses.

“Legacy Building” is the name given to the original Lorraine Motel, which provided comfortable lodging for African-American visitors who were not welcome at other hotels in the days of segregation. The Lorraine Motel was a popular stop in the Green Guide, also called The Green Book, that listed establishments throughout the country that served African Americans. It remained a valued resource for decades until segregation was legally struck down.

Self said the room and balcony where Dr. King was killed will be preserved as it is. 

“We are all here because of a place,” said Self. “I have learned the power of place here at the Civil Rights Museum. This place has power because there is power in truth-telling. With these expansions, the legacy of truth-telling will continue. The power of truth-telling is that lives are changed, and people are transformed.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield Board Chair Emily Reynolds announced that Founders Park will be Memphis’s third “Healthy Place.” Reynolds called the park “hallowed ground” and expressed the honor Blue Cross Blue Shield felt in being a part of such a significant project.

Blue Cross Blue Shield is reportedly investing $9.6 million to “re-imagine the space for people to be able to come and reflect after visiting the museum,” according to Vice-President Kevin Woods, who directs the Memphis market.

“It will be an amazing space, not just for Memphians, but people across the country,” said Woods. 

The Museum’s former Chief Marketing and External Affairs Officer Faith Morris was present for the event but did not make formal remarks. 

“I felt it was important to be here for this great expansion and redesign of the museum,” Morris told The New Tri-State Defender Newspaper. “The museum is, indeed, a transformative place for visitors. Upgrading and expanding exhibits will meet the demand for telling the Civil Rights story as some attempt to rewrite history. 

“I am happy about what is happening now.  The message of the Civil Rights Movement must endure. It will as long as landmarks such as this one still stand.”

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