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Exterior of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis TN
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum

Civil Rights History Is on View in Memphis

Memphis is known for things like BBQ & blues. The city is also known for its role in the civil rights movement which comes to life at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The significant impact Memphis had on the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s can be learned when traveling along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which leads you to attractions like the National Civil Rights Museum, Clayborn Temple, the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, and Fisk University. Hear the stories and see the progress of foot soldiers who led the charge for equality among all races in the United States. We’ve also outlined where you can stay and dine in Memphis, rounding out your trip itinerary along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.

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Memphis is known for lots of things – barbecue, the blues, Graceland and Sun Studio to name just a few. 

The river city is also known for some critical events of the civil rights movement and the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. That history comes to life at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the historic Lorraine Motel, which opened in 1991 and features 260 artifacts and 40 films in two buildings.

Iconic elements such as the Montgomery bus, the sit-in counters, the Freedom Riders bus and the Memphis sanitation truck take visitors through the rich and turbulent history of civil rights in the American South. Additional permanent and traveling exhibits also are on view throughout the year.

A Piece of History Saved

Dr. King came to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers and decry the lack of human rights for African Americans. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, an event that sent shock waves around the country and the world.

Now, more than 50 years after his death, the National Civil Rights Museum preserves his memory and the civil rights movement at this historical site, where visitors can trace the history of the American civil rights movement from the 17th century to today. 

Unforgettable Experiences at the Lorraine Motel

The National Civil Rights Museum debuted new and renovated exhibits in 2014, offering visitors immersive environments to virtually experience history.

You can step into the dark, confined space of a ship used to transport slaves in “A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America 1619-1861.” Learn how students resisted segregation in “Standing Up By Sitting Down: Student Sit-Ins 1960;” or experience the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in a mock courtroom.

Experience the first, large-scale demonstration against segregation in the U.S., which started when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger in “The Year They Walked: Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956.” The exhibit “Say It Loud: Black Pride, 1966-1975” shares the messages, music and poetry of the Black Power/Black Pride era.

Of course, no visit to the National Civil Rights Museum is complete without visiting Room 306, the last room in which Dr. King stayed. The museum has re-created and preserved the room with objects and artifacts as they appeared the day Dr. King was assassinated.

Details About the Assassination

The outside of The Legacy building in Memphis


The Legacy building opened in 2002 inside the boarding house from where the assassin’s bullet was allegedly fired. Here, you can explore exhibits that examine the investigation surrounding King’s death and the conspiracy theories that ensued.

Walk along the “U.S. Civil Rights Movement Timeline (1619-April 1968),” which starts with the first enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. “Final Days (November 1967-April 1968)” recounts the actions of Dr. King during his last months and those of his accused assassin, James Earl Ray. “Search for the Killer” chronicles the capture and arrest of Ray, and “Lingering Questions” explores the unanswered – did Ray act alone? Was Dr. King’s death part of a conspiracy?

Celebrate triumphs of the Movement at the Freedom Award Wall, which honors recipients of the museum's national and international recognitions. The film “We Want to be Free” highlights the success of human rights movements all over the world.

The National Civil Rights Museum is a gem for travelers who want to better understand the heroes and icons of the movement and African American history.

Stay in Comfort (and Get Some 'Cue)

Guests at the National Civil Rights Museum have the advantage of being in dynamic Downtown Memphis. Take time to explore!

Memphis is the barbecue capital of the country, and Central BBQ is a local favorite for its fall-off-the-bone meat. A smoked meat emporium, Central BBQ has a vast menu that includes dry-rub ribs, hot chicken wings and barbecue nachos – and, of course, its signature sauce. (When you return home, remember: They will ship their ’cue anywhere in the U.S.)

Make your visit more memorable with distinctive lodgings. The Hu Hotel, a boutique hotel, uses bold colors and striking furniture to create a place as distinctive as Memphis itself. Three food and drink options from the first floor to the roof (including an incredible view of the mighty Mississippi River) are available.

For a more traditional stay, try Hotel Napoleon, located in the historic Winchester building that dates back to 1902. The hotel’s classic architecture is accentuated by contemporary amenities, including premium bedding, 50-inch flat-screen TVs and a state-of-the-art fitness facility.

Two women sit in the lobby of ARRIVE Memphis, a new hotel
It’s easy to find a stylish hotel in Memphis.
Photo Credit Courtesy of Holly Whitfield/Memphis Tourism

Two of the newest accommodations near the museum include ARRIVE Memphis and The Central Station Memphis, Curio Collection by Hilton – both located in repurposed historic buildings in the South Main Arts District

Downtown Memphis has dozens of other choices for food and lodging, and you’ll find many within walking distance of the National Civil Rights Museum. 

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