National Civil Rights Museum: A Memphis Experience

incredible sculpture at the civil rights museum

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As I stood at the back of the bus, tears streamed down my face. It wasn’t because of the discomfort of the hard, worn-out seat or the sweltering heat of a Southern summer’s day. No, it was the weight of history, the echoes of voices long silenced, and the relentless struggle for justice that brought me to tears. I was inside the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and I had just experienced the Rosa Parks Bus exhibit on my self-guided tour, one of the many emotional journeys this museum offers.

National Civil Rights Museum: A Memphis Experience

The National Civil Rights Museum is more than just a museum; it’s a pilgrimage into the heart of the American civil rights movement. Built around the hallowed ground of the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on the balcony of his hotel room and received a fatal shot that tragic day in 1968, this institution carries the stories, the pain, and the triumphs of those who fought for civil rights in the United States. Established in 1991, it serves as a living testament to the struggles and progress of this pivotal era.

Why it Matters to Me:

My family is diverse, with multiple step, half, and adopted siblings. The thought that my black brothers deal with racism daily seems wrong. That my kid’s BFF is a young black teen – and what that kid would have had to go through in the 60s – just reading the stories of what happened to so many teens …

I sobbed for all of them.

I’m Not New to This

I have toured America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, The Historic Milton House in Milton, Springfield Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum digging deeper into the Civil War, and even parts of the Freedom Trail in Louisiana. 

The concept of this centuries-long struggle isn’t new to me, but 40-45 years ago it was only touched on in my Middle School and High School lessons. Our textbooks focused on the white men who “built” this country – not the women, migrants, or people of color, many of whom really did all the heavy lifting that credit was taken for.

The mural just inside the Civil Rights Museum
This was the mural that greeted me as we entered.

History and Establishment:

The roots of the National Civil Rights Museum are deep and intertwined with the very fabric of American history. It was founded with a singular mission: to explore how the civil rights movement continues to shape equality and freedom globally. The museum’s journey, much like the movement it represents, has seen growth and transformation over the years.

In 2012, a major renovation brought a $27.5 million investment into the museum. This not only expanded its physical footprint but also enriched its narrative with new exhibits. Today, it stands as one of the nation’s premier heritage and cultural museums, serving as a beacon of remembrance and a catalyst for revitalization in its neighborhood.

You don’t just visit it, you experience it. While even their website says the average museum experience is 1.5 hours, I was there over 3 and could have stayed longer.

History and Establishment: of the Civil Rights Museum
The well curated historical exhibits draw you in – complete with the sounds you hear in the background

Architecture and Design:

The museum’s design is a powerful testament to its purpose. The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short, stands as it did on that fateful day, preserving the past in a poignant juxtaposition with the modern structure surrounding it. A glass bridge connects the main building to the Lorraine Motel, symbolizing the vital link between history and the present.

Within these walls, visitors are transported through time. The interactive exhibits thoughtfully weave together the story of the civil rights movement, from the harrowing days of slavery to the landmark events of the 1950s and 60s. The Rosa Parks Bus and the Freedom Rides exhibit are just a few examples of the immersive experiences that await.

Exhibits at the Civil Rights Museum
I had no idea the global impact of slavery – they valued people so little…

Exhibits and Collections:

The exhibits and collections are a treasure trove of American history. Permanent historical exhibits, such as “A Culture of Resistance”, “The Rise of Jim Crow”, “The Year They Walked”, and “Is This America?” delve deep into the struggle for equality of African Americans. They showcase artifacts from pivotal moments like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington.

The “I Am A Man” exhibit beautifully highlights the role of the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 – I had no idea that this occurred the year I was born. I was constantly amazed at how hard one race worked to keep another from having decent and basic human rights, through any means possible. 

Be the change that you want to see in the world mural
Be the change you want to see in the world – a great message

What really was powerful to me – being able to hear stories in their own voice. Several stations were set up where one can listen to recorded conversations or recollections from people on stories from their past. That was just an additional layer to what you could see, read, watch, touch, and connect with.

Conspiracy theories, Middle Passage, the inside of a jail cell, student sit-ins, the segregation era, sanitation workers, King’s room – all of that still has my head spinning and I feel like I only touched on the key events.

It was so very – very – powerful.

And then there was this bus.

I climbed the two steps and peeked in the back of the bus – to see a lovely black couple that told me it was OK to come on. I was trying not to cry as I told them that it wasn’t – it was all so wrong.

The Rosa Parks exhibit
They boycotted riding the bus for a year – walking everywhere instead.

After I pulled myself together, I sat on a seat – and noticed that along the top right side was a huge block of information. It was in the place where the bus ads were placed on the left side of the bus.

I got up to walk to the front so I could read it and jumped about a mile high when the bus driver statue started yelling at me. I then started crying again as I read the information as I slowly walked to the back of the bus – stopping for a minute to rest my hand on Rosa’s shoulder. 

Yes, I was a mess by the time I got to the back of the bus and gathered my things. I told that lovely couple goodbye and stepped off as I stifled my sobs.

It was all so incredibly wrong.

My crying at the natonal civil rights museum
This place left a deep impression on my soul – it’s difficult to describe. You need to experience it for yourself.

Educational Programs:

The museum’s commitment to education extends beyond its exhibits. It offers a range of programs tailored to diverse audiences and is so much more than just a history lesson. From virtual education experiences for students to community outreach efforts promoting social justice and equality, the National Civil Rights Museum is a living classroom for all.

Impact and Influence:

Perhaps the most significant impact of the National Civil Rights Museum lies in its ability to inspire. Situated at the site of Dr. King’s assassination, it serves as a potent reminder of the ongoing struggle for racial equality. With travel advisories currently being issued in our own country against visiting certain states if you are a person of color (or gay) I think places like this museum are needed more than ever. 

Through educational programs and outreach, it ensures that the lessons of the civil rights movement are passed down to future generations, in a time when some states choose to remove it from their school curriculum.

garbage worker strike in 1968
I simply have no words…every sign message is more than valid.

The accolades and awards it has received, including National Historic Landmark status, affirm its importance in preserving the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. More than a museum, it stands as a beacon of hope, a testament to human resilience, and a call to action for all who pass through its doors.

Final Thoughts

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is not just a destination; it’s an emotional and educational journey. It reminds us of the battles fought, the progress made, and the work left to do in the quest for justice and equality as you follow each step of the civil rights movement through short films, oral histories, and other interactive media.

It’s a place where history comes to life, and where, like me, you might find yourself moved to tears at every turn, discovering a deeper connection to the past, and a stronger resolve for a more just future. This museum isn’t just a must-visit; it’s a must-experience and one of the most important museums to add to your list.

Pro Tip: Take plenty of Kleenex

You can find it at:

National Civil Rights Museum • 450 Mulberry Street. • Memphis, TN 38103, right in downtown Memphis

​Learn More

While in Memphis, check out both Sun Studio and STAX Records to learn how music helped the human rights movements with talented people like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin.

Field of Flowers North Farm
Click on the picture to check it out

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the history of the National Civil Rights Museum?

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis, Tennessee, and was established in 1991. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel, which is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The museum underwent a $27.5 million renovation in 2012, which included the addition of new exhibits and interactive displays.

What exhibits can be seen at the National Civil Rights Museum?

The National Civil Rights Museum has a number of exhibits that focus on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Some of the exhibits include “The Movement Begins,” which explores the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and “The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” which focuses on the boycott that helped to end segregation on public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. Other exhibits include “The Children’s Movement,” “The Voting Rights Act,” and “The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

How much time should I plan to spend at the National Civil Rights Museum?

Visitors to the National Civil Rights Museum should plan to spend at least two hours exploring the exhibits. However, those who are interested in learning more about the Civil Rights Movement may want to spend more time at the museum. (I spent almost four hours and could have spent even more time.

Are there any free admission days at the National Civil Rights Museum?

The National Civil Rights Museum offers free admission to visitors on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is celebrated on the third Monday in January. In addition, the museum offers discounted admission to groups of 15 or more people.

What is the significance of the Lorraine Motel in relation to the National Civil Rights Museum?

The Lorraine Motel is the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The motel was purchased by the National Civil Rights Museum in 1982 and was converted into a museum in 1991. Today, the Lorraine Motel is the centerpiece of the National Civil Rights Museum and serves as a powerful reminder of the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

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