Arguably one of the most important museums in the US highlighting the struggle for Civil Rights, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is both an educational center and a shrine to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who was assassinated at this location in 1968.
History of the Lorraine Motel
To understand the importance of the National Civil Rights Museum located in the heart of the South Main Historic Arts District of downtown Memphis, you first need to understand the Lorraine Motel, where the museum is partially located.
Built in 1925, the Windsor Hotel (as it was known then) was a whites-only establishment. Though the hotel became the Marquette in the 1940s, the racial policy remained.
Things changed in 1945 when Walter Bailey, a Black Memphis businessman, purchased the establishment and renamed it the Lorraine Motel after his wife, Loree, and a well-known tune called "Sweet Lorraine."
The Lorraine was one of a few hotels that served Black travelers.
Singers like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and The Staple Singers were among the motel’s most popular guests, largely due to its proximity to a trio of famous recording studios – Stax Records, Royal Studios and Sun Studio – all less than three miles away.
On April 4, 1968, the motel became the site of one of the darkest days in American history when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on its balcony.
King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike and gave his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple the day before his death, not far from the motel.
The room where King stayed – 306 – was never rented out again and has been preserved, exactly as it was on that day.
By the 1980s, the Lorraine Motel was in foreclosure when D’Army Bailey, who was an activist, a lawyer and a judge, raised over $140,000 to purchase the motel. Bailey’s vision was to make the motel more than a place to learn history. He hoped it would inspire people to take action.
The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 and underwent a $27.5 million renovation in 2012. Today, it serves as the heartbeat and anchor of downtown Memphis. Its presence directly benefits the neighborhood and has sparked the area’s revitalization, with new hotels, restaurants and apartments.
Birth of the National Civil Rights Museum
Over the last 30 years, the National Civil Rights Museum has become a place of unity and community for Black Memphians and those who support the ongoing civil and human rights issues worldwide. It’s been the ideal site and meeting location for various protests like Black Lives Matter, pro-immigration rallies and other peaceful gatherings.
The museum also hosts webinars and special events like the MLK Soul Concert Series and Night at the Lorraine that feature music, food and entertainment.
Every year on April 4 and January 15, King’s birthday, the museum honors his life and legacy through a series of events with prominent civil rights leaders and scholars. And since this is Memphis, local artists give powerful musical performances directly in front of the balcony where King was assassinated.
For the April 4 event, at 6:01pm – the time King was shot - there's a moment of silence for the ceremonial changing of the wreath on the balcony at Room 306.
Since 1991, the museum has hosted the annual Freedom Awards, its biggest event.
The awards, held in October, honor individuals who’ve had a significant impact on the battle for human rights. The 2021 recipients were Michelle Obama and the Poor People's Campaign which is led by Dr. William Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis.
Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum
Over 12 million people a year visit Memphis for its legacy of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll. They head to iconic places like Beale Street, Elvis Presley’s Graceland or the Stax Museum of American Soul Music just to get a taste of it.
However, it’s the history beyond the music that attracts several hundred thousand tourists to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel every year, contributing to the over $3 billion that the Memphis tourism industry earns annually.
The facade of the Lorraine with its mint green doors and railings affixed to the brown and white concrete brick typically evokes heavy emotions for most visitors.
The image of King's assassination carved into our minds makes for a sorrowful and humbling first-time visit.
Upon entry into the museum, visitors are met with a 7000-pound bronze sculpture depicting women, men and children physically linked to one another. The incredibly large artwork is said to represent the struggles of past generations.
Highlights of the museum
The museum tour begins with the “Culture of Resistance” exhibit, which showcases the global impact of slavery. Visitors then head to the theater for a short video about the history and experiences of Black Americans in the US, setting the tone for the rest of the tour.
There are hundreds of historical artifacts and interactive exhibits that cover everything from slavery to the Civil War, and Jim Crow to the civil rights issues of today.
The museum requires at least two hours to fully take in the wealth of knowledge on the self-guided tour. Pace yourself and leave enough time to visit the legacy building (where the assassin’s shot was said to have been fired) as it explains the investigation and conspiracy theories regarding Dr. King’s assassination.
The National Civil Rights Museum remains a link between the civil rights struggles of the past and the continuing fight for equality around the world today.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.