National Civil Rights Museum | Tennessee

For the past thirty years, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, has been educating visitors about the American Civil Rights Movement. Through interactive exhibits, historical collections, and special events, the museum gives visitors the chance to walk through history and hopefully inspires change for the future.

pin image for national civil rights museum with kids

Though we’ve driven through Memphis several times, we’ve never made a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum underwent a MAJOR renovation in 2013-2014, and I knew it had to be one of our stops on this trip (2015). We bought a membership before we left because a family membership was cheaper than paying for all of us to get in! This is no longer the case, although the membership is definitely worth it if you’re planning to visit more than once a year.

Lorraine Motel sign with smiling kids

The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968. While the museum covers his life and death, it also provides a comprehensive explanation of the entire American civil rights movement.

the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated

As could be expected for a museum of this type, some of the exhibits’ materials are of a sensitive nature. There is a phenomenal family guide available that walks you through those sensitive materials and encourages talking to your kids about what could be troubling content.

MLK memorial plaque at the Lorraine Motel where he was shot

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated while speaking with colleagues on the balcony of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel. The wreath is a permanent fixture on the railing where he was shot.

National Civil Rights Museum window where MLK was shot from

“I may not get there with you but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land”- Martin Luther King Jr, the day before his assassination.
James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King with a single rifle shot from the bathroom window (the window on the far right) of a rooming house across the street from where King was staying.  While Ray was arrested and convicted, conspiracy theories abound and can be explored in the Legacy Building.

View from the window from which MLK was shot

This is the view from the window next to the bathroom window in the rooming house.  The bathroom itself and the bathroom window have been preserved and encased in glass- you can’t go in, but you can look in and see what it looked like on that fateful day over 50 years ago.

National Civil Rights Museum signage regarding slavery

The inside of the Lorraine Motel has been converted to an amazing museum, and it begins with a graphic look at the global impact of slavery.

4 kids at a soda shop counter pretending to do a sit-in

We learned about sit-ins and had a chance to sit on barstools at a replica 1960s lunch counter. This exhibit was nowhere near as intense as the one at the Center For Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, but the video footage playing on the wall does show a great deal of violence.

Replica Birmingham jail cells National Civil Rights Museum with kids

The kids ended up jailed in Birmingham, which they thought was fun, and as an adult, brought back memories of being in the jail cells at Alcatraz.

4 kids in the back of the bus

All the kids squished in the back of the bus (with Rosa Parks at the front). While some of these exhibits touched on aspects of the Civil Rights Movement that they’ve heard of, like Rosa Parks and the bus, others were completely new information and opened up the door for more discussion.

National Civil Rights Museum with kids

We had the chance to watch civil rights news on TV, and the kids were both shocked and appalled that back in the day, TVs really were that small AND the programming wasn’t in color.

Protesters and marchers at National Civil Rights Museum

We learned about the March on Washington in 1963 and the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968.

Interactive exhibits at National Civil Rights Museum with kids

The kids LOVED all of the interactive displays- museums are a lot more fun when you can touch and interact with the material. Ellie’s favorite was the phone with a recording of President Johnson and King discussing the Voting Rights Act.  Technically she didn’t listen to any of the recordings because she had the phone upside down, but she did say “hi” a lot. Ben and Lexie liked the “Join the Movement” smart table and learned about women’s rights and poverty. Nick really liked the typewriter from the voter registration exhibit (mainly because he really wants a typewriter).

Lorraine Motel sign on a blue sky day in Memphis

The museum ends with a look at the preserved Room 306- the room that King was staying in on his trip to Memphis. While I think that our kids had a relatively good understanding of the civil rights movement both from school and from being exposed to it at home (we do like our documentaries and American history!), this museum brought it to life and showcased the cruel injustices in American history in a way that they had never seen before.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel sign

The National Civil Rights Museum was one of the highlights of our trip, and we will definitely be back again. We spent about two hours exploring the museum and grounds, but you could easily spend four to five hours if you want to read everything.

TIPS FOR VISITING THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM

  • The museum has reopened!!
  • Timed tickets are sold online, and walk-ups are taken based on availability.
  • Adults are $17, Seniors 55+ are $15, Kids ages 5-17 are $14, and 4 and under are free.
  • Free parking is available – to access the lot, turn north on Mulberry St from G.E. Patterson Ave.
  • The Family Guide is a must-read if you’re bringing younger kids.

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