Museum Monday: The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

Signage for the Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee against a gray sky

The third Monday in January is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday to honor the life and legacy of the foremost figure of the American civil rights movement. The National Civil Rights Museum, adjacent to and encompassing the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, memorializes and celebrates Dr. King all year round. 

The museum is one of the top visitor attractions in Memphis and an institution of profound importance. Its permanent exhibits, which take visitors on a journey through the civil rights movement from the 17th century to the present day, are outstanding in their depth and power. A visit to this museum is a complex and compelling emotional experience, and an absolute must-do in Memphis.

The facade of the Lorraine Motel with 1960s cars and a memorial wreath for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr adjacent to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
A memorial to Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel (Photo by California News Press)

The Lorraine Motel

Approaching the Civil Rights Museum entrance is immediately moving. The familiar signage reading “Lorraine Motel” above a letterboard is visible from afar. Its color-blocked mid-century design would be cheerful if not for the inextricable association with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stood on a balcony less than 200 yards away. He was 39 years old.

The spot outside Room 306 where Dr. King was slain on April 4, 1968 is marked by a large mourning wreath. Vintage cars parked outside complement the motel’s mode as a time-capsule. Behind a low wall, it’s 1968; segregation is brutally enforced, and the Lorraine Motel thrives as the premier lodging in Memphis for African Americans. 

The Lorraine Motel, owned by Walter and Loree Bailey, hosted world-famous Black musicians while they recorded at nearby Stax Records or played the clubs of Beale Street. Dr. King had stayed at the motel during previous visits to Memphis. This final stay followed his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. The speech included the words “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you…”

Statues of an enslaved woman and child with a slave trader inside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
The first exhibit space inside the National Civil Rights Museum (Photo by California News Press)

Permanent Exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum

Walk beyond the motel frontage and into the Lorraine Building, the main exhibit space of the National Civil Rights Museum complex. You will then follow a chronology of the civil rights movement through five centuries, a self-guided tour that brings you back to the present day. Allow at least 2 hours for a visit; more if you’re inclined to thoroughly absorb the information-heavy displays, interactive kiosks, listening stations and short films. 

Oral histories are key to the museum’s exhibits. They emphasize the human individuals, families and communities who lived through each successive era of the movement. Such concepts as basic human rights, equality and racial justice are thus elevated from the abstraction of history textbooks. 

A replica of the bus Rosa Parks rose in Montgomery inside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
A replica of the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat (Photo by California News Press)

A major achievement of the museum is honoring the many, many names that might not be featured in history books. The key moments and figures from the civil rights movement get their due, but so do the lesser-known citizens whose numbers were essential to its successes. The same is true for expanding the stories of major moments. You will appreciate that years upon years of efforts came before and after the most celebrated days. 

Permanent exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum are as follows:

A Culture of Resistance: Detailing slavery in America from 1619-1861 including an illuminated floor map of the transatlantic trade routes, enslaved peoples’ diverse cultural origins across Africa, and the underlying forces of commerce around sugar, cotton and tobacco. A cross-section replica of a slave ship with its chained human cargo is particularly affecting.

The Rise of Jim Crow: This exhibit shows the parallels of court battles around segregation with the vibrant Black culture developing among communities subject to  “separate but equal” laws.

Separate is Not Equal: This interactive space details the battle for desegregation of public schools in the courtroom and classroom. Take a moment to look at the faces and names of the small children who faced genuine peril in pursuing their right to an equal education.  

The Year They Walked: Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956. The centerpiece of this exhibit is a replica of the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat. Visitors can walk and sit on the bus with a statue representing Parks, and absorb the stories of a year-long struggle that would prove pivotal in the civil rights movement. 

Models of protestors and hecklers at a lunch counter sit-in inside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
The “Standing Up by Sitting Down” exhibition (Photo by California News Press)

Standing Up By Sitting Down gives context to the student sit-ins of 1960. An original lunch counter with models of protestors and hecklers brings the historic protests to life. 

We Are Prepared to Die: Freedom Rides 1961 is an in-depth presentation of the Freedom Rides encompassing the roles of protestors, allies and the Kennedy administration. See a replica shell of a Greyhound bus burned by a white supremacist mob in Alabama.

The Children Shall Lead Them: Birmingham 1963. Inside a replica jail cell, hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. read part of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” followed by President Kennedy calling for the passage of a civil rights bill.

For Jobs and Freedom: March on Washington 1963. Experience the march through this immersive exhibit featuring replica signs, DC landmarks and audio of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

Is this America? Learn about the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and associated efforts toward racial equality in America.

How Long? Not Long. This exhibit shows how voting rights did not directly translate to full suffrage for African Americans. It also details the march from Selma to Montgomery where Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Alabama state capitol.

The exhibit space dedicated to the Black Power movement at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
The “What Do We Want” exhibition (Photo by California News Press)

What Do We Want? Black Power highlights the rise of the Black Power movement, putting it into the context of the wider civil rights movement.

Join the Movement and World in Transition are dynamic exhibits detailing contemporary human rights movements around the globe.

I Am a Man: The Memphis Sanitation Strike 1968 brings the museum visitor back to Memphis, where striking sanitation workers captured the fundamental question of the civil rights movement with signs reading “I Am a Man.” Hear the “Mountaintop” speech Dr. King gave less than 24 hours before he died.

King’s Last Hours: Behind a glass wall is Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, left exactly as it was before Dr. King stepped out on the balcony on April 4, 1968. A room service tray holds cups and glasses, a newspaper sits on a neatly made bed, while the other has the corners of its covers pulled back. This final exhibit is a chronological conclusion to the life of Dr. King, but the museum’s mission proves it was far from the end of his influence. 

Statues depict sanitation worker protestors with signs reading I Am a Man at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
The museum’s “I Am a Man” exhibition (Photo by California News Press)

The National Civil Rights Museum for Families

The National Civil Rights Museum is open to visitors of all ages, but it recommends its permanent exhibitions for visitors aged 12 and up due to disturbing materials and themes. A family guide is available to help parents decide whether or not to bring children under 12 to the museum and how to discuss the exhibits with them. 


National Civil Rights Museum

450 Mulberry Street, Memphis, Tennessee 38103

(901) 521-9699

Read more Museum Monday stories from California News Press.

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