Inside the National Civil Rights Museum: African-American History in Memphis

By: Samantha Crespo

April 28, 2015

Inside the National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis, Tennessee, takes its name from an ancient city on the Nile. (Remember that when you notice the glinting pyramid-shaped building on the Mississippi River.) But the city’s connection to African culture runs deeper than any river. Memphis was the centre of the global cotton exchange – and the network of plantations and African slaves who worked them. Later, Memphis was the city that former slaves and their descendants aspired to reach. In the 1960s, Memphis was the scene of a shot heard around the world. Today, the city is the sum of all these things, from the National Civil Rights Museum to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.


Must-see museums

Inside the National Civil Rights Museum
Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum repurposes part of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated © Brand USA/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is fresh off a $20M renovation that will make your visit more interactive; expect listening stations throughout that layer artefacts and vignettes with interviews, speeches and songs. But one of the most moving elements of the museum remains: a view into Room 306, where Martin Luther King Jr. spent the night before his assassination on the balcony just outside.

African-American culture in Memphis
Beale Street is lit with neon lights and packed with partiers after dark © Edgar/Flickr

From the museum, walk over to Beale Street. By night, it’s a swirl of neon lights and music spilling from clubs. By day, its buildings whisper stories of the street’s heyday as a centre for African-American culture. Take the audio walking tour, available at the Memphis Rock “˜n’ Soul Museum, to hear stories of W.C. Handy, B.B. King and others forever entwined with the area. Toward the east end of the street, tour W.C. Handy’s Memphis home and the Ernest C. Withers Collection Museum and Gallery, which houses an extensive collection of Civil Rights-era photographs.

African-American culture in Memphis
Inside the Ernest C. Withers Collection Museum and Gallery you’ll see photos from the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, plus snapshots of artists from B.B. King to Isaac Hayes © Justin Fox Burks/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011

You’ll learn at the National Civil Rights Museum that the Lorraine Motel was a popular hangout (and songwriting spot) for Stax Records artists. Venture out of downtown to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a stop that’s as much about the music as it is about the collaboration across colour lines when Memphis was still segregated. In addition to artefacts – from footage of the Stax/Volt European Revue to Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac – the museum hosts live entertainment and changing exhibitions. On Tuesday afternoons (from April through to the end of July), the “Live in Studio A” concert series is free with museum admission. From 17th July – 31st Dec 2015, the museum will welcome the powerful exhibition, Motown to Def Jam, which juxtaposes artists’ interpretations of popular African-American songs with social movements in the U.S.

SAfrican-American culture in Memphis
More than 900 singles and nearly 300 full-length albums hang in the Hall of Records at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis © Dan Ball/Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011

Festivals, events & tours


Time your visit to Memphis to include one of these tours or special events honouring African-American culture in the city:

  • Enjoy a show at the intimate Hattiloo Theatre, one of America’s best independent Black theatres.
  • Arrange an excursion with Memphis Black Heritage Tours to visit the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.
  • Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on the third Monday of January, annually. The National Civil Rights Museum always hosts a full day of activities.
  • Commemorate Dr. King’s life at the museum on April 4th, the anniversary of his 1968 assassination.
Inside the National Civil Rights Museum
Visitors to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel can see Room 306, where Martin Luther King Jr. spent the night before his assassination © Skychi Travels/Flickr

Header image: The skyline of downtown Memphis, Tennessee © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011


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Written by Samantha Crespo


Samantha Crespo

Samantha Crespo is a native of Florida, which she believes set her up to be a career tour guide. (It helps that she’s keen on playing tourist in her own town and beyond – Ensenada, Mexico, and Nafplio, Greece, are favourites – though she feels most at home in the American South.) Since 2005, Samantha has mixed pleasure with business as a travel writer and editor. She admits to squealing when assignments call her to listen to live music in her adopted hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, or to discover new campgrounds with her husband and daughter. Get her insider's perspective on exploring Memphis in her book, 100 Things To Do in Memphis Before You Die.

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