Its doors are aquamarine, its cinder block walls are beige, and it still has floor-level air-conditioning units in the rooms. If you just happened upon the two-story Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, you might think of it as a kitschy relic from a more whimsical America.
But whimsy doesn't set its place in the national memory, and few people just happen upon the Lorraine Motel.
My 12-year-old son, Sam, and I didn't. We went there the same way thousands of others go there - by design. We wanted to pay our respects to history. For it was at the Lorraine Motel, on April 4, 1968, as he prepared to go to dinner, that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Today, the Lorraine is the National Civil Rights Museum. It's also the first stop for Sam and me on our weeklong civil rights tour of the Deep South. We've been to Valley Forge, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where the nation's ideals of equality and justice were forged. It seemed at least as important to go to the places where those ideals were tested.
We're not the only ones with this idea. Southern states report a booming business in civil rights tourism. The National Park Service even offers a "We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement" itinerary of 49 properties, primarily in the South (see "Civil Rights Tour" at left).
"People are wanting to have a deeper understanding of their culture," says Rhonda Turner, manager of public relations and marketing for the National Civil Rights Museum. "More than ever people are wondering what causes hatred and how to become more tolerant of others. To do that, they start at home."