The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis was one of the most overwhelming museum experiences I’ve ever had. To be sure, this is not a “quirky” attraction. It’s a serious, sobering examination of our history.
The museum was built in and around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.
They’ve preserved the room where he stayed and all the artifacts relating to his killing. Even the bullet that was removed from his body is on display, for crying out loud.
It’s almost too much. It’s definitely informative, and anyone truly interested in American history or issues regarding race and civil rights should make a visit.
Here’s a look at the museum exhibits, ticket prices, photography policy, and everything else you may need to make a visit.
What you’ll find during a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum
Although there is a Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, there is not yet an official Martin Luther King Museum in America.
The National Civil Rights Museum, though, is pretty close, since it covers all of MLK’s life and everything about his untimely death.
But they have many other permanent exhibits and collections as well. They have displays covering the timeline from slavery to the present day, going through the slave revolts, court battles, bus boycotts and Washington DC protests and marches.
A wreath marks the exact spot on the balcony where King was shot in April, 1968. The tour takes you inside the hotel, right next to the balcony of room 306, where he was standing when his life was taken.
Standing so close to such a tragic spot in history was an overwhelming feeling. Visiting this museum is an emotional experience, so be prepared.
The tour continues across the street, into the building where James Earl Ray is believed to have fired the fatal shot.
This part of the tour is a bit freaky. You can see the actual bathroom and look out the window the shot supposedly came from. It’s that top right window obscured by the tree in this photo:
This structure is now called The Legacy Building. The first floor features a timeline of the American Civil Rights Movement.
The second floor has exhibits about the assassination, the investigation, the evidence against James Earl Ray, and the conspiracy theories surrounding King’s shooting.
There’s also a Freedom Award Wall showing recipients that have been honored by the museum.
Permanent Exhibitions at the Martin Luther King Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991. In 2014, the museum underwent a renovation that greatly increased the number of exhibit space.
In 2016, the museum became a Smithsonian Affiliate museum, adding another layer of prestige to the site.
Permanent exhibitions here include a display about the 250-year history of slavery in America, another about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and one about the famous student sit-ins, such as the one in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The list of permanent exhibits on display at the museum:
• The Year They Walked: Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956
• We Are Prepared to Die: Freedom Rides 1961
• A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America 1619-1861
• Standing Up By Sitting Down: Student Sit-Ins 1960
• What Do We Want?: Black Power
See more about the collections on their website.
National Civil Rights Museum Ticket Prices & Hours
Basic hours are 9 to 5 everyday except Tuesday, when they’re closed. As of 2023, the ticket price for a standard National Civil Rights Museum ticket is $18 for adults.
Seniors and students pay $16, while kids 17 and under pay $15. Headset rentals are available for audio tours.
Photography used to be banned inside the National Civil Rights Museum, hence why I have so few pics from my own visit. But, good news! Guests are now welcome to take pics without flash.
The museum is closed only on the following holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.
Every other holiday, you can still visit the Lorraine Motel and see the museum. Visiting on Martin Luther King Day would be epic! Admission is actually free on MLK Day.
The museum hosts special events like speaking and reading engagements, throughout the year, especially during Black History Month.
The average visit takes 60-90 minutes. You can purchase tickets in advance via their website, or get a walk-up ticket in person.
While you’re in Memphis, be sure to visit Elvis Presley’s former mansion of Graceland as well. You don’t even have to pay to go inside – you can visit the Meditation Garden for free in the morning.
If your visit comes in May, attend the Beale Street Music Festival, one of the best values for a music fest in the country.
And be sure to see Sun Studio, the recording studio where legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis made some of their biggest hits.
How would you feel about being so close to such a tragic and historic site at the Martin Luther King National Civil Rights Museum?