While visiting Memphis for a conference 2 years ago, I knew I had to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. It ended up being one of the most moving and poignant museum visits that I have ever had. While the museum is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a great online resource for your family to learn more about Black History and the history of the Civil Rights struggle in our country.
The main part of the museum was built beside the preserved Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his last night on earth, to house artifacts and educational displays about Civil Rights. The museum has also preserved Dr. King’s motel room and the spot on the balcony where an assassin’s bullet took his life.
The museum is a thoughtful and educational place to visit. The curators have done an excellent job using statues, vehicles, and other real items to relay the hard history of the Civil Rights struggle. The main exhibits of the museum take you through Black History from 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to America to the bus boycotts and sit-ins of the 1950s and 1960s.
A great way to visit virtually during the pandemic is to watch this video from the museum, which takes you through the exhibits silently, allowing the powerful exhibits and sound effects to speak for themselves.
Many of the exhibits are hands-on and allow visitors to imagine themselves in the shoes of those who are represented. Some of the most memorable activities for children (and adults!) include the bus where you can sit with Rosa Parks and the luncheonette where you can join the sit-in protesters.
As you move to the end of the museum, the exhibits focus on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, which is what brought Dr. King to Memphis. The moving video of his “Mountaintop” speech is inspirational yet sorrowful, knowing that it is his last speech.
The most heartbreaking part of the museum is the preserved motel room from Dr. King’s last night there. The personal things in the room – a coffee cup, a newspaper – had a big impact on me. They sit there just as if Dr. King was coming back in the door any minute.
The museum also preserves the balcony where Dr. King was shot by an assassin’s bullet. Viewing this balcony from the walkway outside is the best place to view and pay your respects.
Across the street is the Legacy building, which is the boarding house where Dr. King’s assassin fired the fatal bullet and which now contains the American Civil Rights Movement Timeline.
While the museum deals with hard history, it has put together a good Family Guide to help families with young children understand what they are seeing. This is also a good resource to discuss the challenges that are facing our country at the moment.
As someone who believes in the power of learning history to change the future, I think it’s vital to visit the actual sites where crucial moments in history happened to create empathy and a greater understanding of these important issues that plague our country. A virtual (or in person when allowed!) visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is an educational and powerful site to add to your must-see list.
Helpful Hints (be sure to verify current restrictions/closures due to the coronavirus pandemic):
- Cost: current ticket prices unavailable
- Recommended: all ages (be sure to read the Family Guide to learn which videos and exhibits may be unsuitable for small children); museum recommends ages 12 and up for permanent exhibits
- Tour time: 1-2 hours
- Gift shop located onsite
- Transportation: Accessible by car with plenty of parking
- Dining options nearby: Across the street is the award-winning Central BBQ. I highly recommend it!
- Hotels nearby: When in Memphis, your family has to stay at The Peabody with the daily march of the famous ducks!
- Nearby attractions include: The iconic Beale Street Blues District, Mississippi Riverboat Cruises, Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum, Children’s Museum of Memphis, and Memphis Zoo
Books to Read:
I encourage you to visit the museum shop’s website to purchase books that will also help support the museum. The museum has also put together a bibliography for students here.
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