“April 4; shot rings out in the Memphis sky” – U2
The National Civil Rights Museum is part of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and it is a sombre yet essential must-see when you visit Memphis, in my opinion.
January 18 is Martin Luther King Jnr’s birthday, and Monday January 16 is a public holiday in the US this year (2023). Entry to the Civil Rights Museum will be free.
I first visited Memphis, and this museum, in 2013 before the current buildings opened, and the only place to visit then was a small exhibit across the road from the infamous motel in what was the boarding house that escaped convict, James Earl Ray, stayed in and from where he shot Dr King from the bathroom window.
Standing at that bathroom window, facing the still untouched room at the Lorraine Motel opposite with the cars still parked in front, is a macabre experience. But they do that in America!
You can also stand in the former Book Depository in Dallas and see a white painted X in the road where President John F Kennedy was shot. (See my blog on JFK’s Last Day here >>)
In 2014, two buildings connected to the motel were turned into an interactive museum and it’s truly a must-see when you visit Memphis. In 2016 it received the honour of being affiliated to the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC.
What you find now is a chronological journey tracing the history of the civil rights movement from the 17th century, starting with the abduction of slaves from Africa who were brought on ships to America and treated worse than animals, shackled together – many of them not making it alive.
You’ll read about the auctions where families were sold as slaves and see the faces of men, women and children who were kept as chattels from 1619-1861. Then you’ll move through the to the 1960s and see exhibits from the student sit-ins and protests for equality.
All this gives the back story to the King assassination, which wasn’t here before this museum opened.
There is a sculpture of Rosa Parks on a bus and you can step up into the bus and take a photo of this tenacious little woman who made such an impact on the future of equality during her 1956 stand. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in”, she later said.
Then you’ll come through to the Lorraine Motel itself, and the bedroom left untouched after Dr King’s murder. A coffee cup beside his bed. His car still parked out front.
In the 1960s segregation era this was an upscale lodging catering to black guests. Somehow James Earl Ray knew this and stayed in a room across the road.
There are many opinions around of a mafia and/or government conspiracy.
Ray had escaped from prison and had plastic surgery to change the appearance of his nose before he drove to Memphis. He was able to get away after the shooting. And even the King family don’t believe he was responsible.
However in 2000, the US government looked into the case and in 150 pages ruled that there was no conspiracy and James Earl Ray was solely responsible. He died in prison aged 70.
How long to allow at Civil Rights Museum
I would suggest two to three hours.
We arrived about 4.30pm only to find it closed at 5pm – and having gone back the next day to visit, we wouldn’t have been done even by 6pm. If you’re the kind of person who likes to read and watch everything you could easily spend three hours. There were also lots of people when we went on a Sunday afternoon. The museum is closed Tuesdays.
There are 260 artefacts, 40 movies you can watch at various lengths, and lots of oral history told through interactive media from the beginning of the resistance during slavery through the Civil War and into the 20th century culminating in Martin Luther King Jnr’s death here in the connected motel room.
Price: $16 adults, $14 seniors & students, $13 children 5-17. Under 5’s are free as are members and active military.
The National Civil Rights Museum is located about four blocks from Beale Street (six blocks from the Peabody Hotel, where we stayed).
If you’re interested in the history of not just Civil Rights, but women’s rights, Native American rights and even Asian American rights and the fight, that is honestly (and shamefully) still ongoing in many areas today, you’ll enjoy this Women in American Civil Rights History article by Maryville University. I found it a fascinating read and something I urge you to look at.
What to do after visiting the museum
After this moving visit, you might be wanting to eat or maybe to see another museum – albeit a bit lighter!
I can suggest two options: head across the road from the Lorraine Motel to Central BBQ and get some slow cooked meats, mac and cheese, beans and other condiments. There is probably going to be a line out the door, but it’s worth it!
Or head off to either the Stax Museum of American Soul Music to see the story of soul, or to Sun Studio, the birthplace of Rock n Roll and where Elvis Presley cut his first demo in the hopes of becoming a star and where you can stand in the room that started it all.