National Civil Rights Museum - History and Facts | History Hit

National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis, Tennessee, United States

The site where the father of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr, was gunned down.

Peta Stamper

11 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About National Civil Rights Museum

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee is the sight of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Across the street from the motel is the building and room in which James Earl Ray fired the shots, also forming part of the museum.

Alongside examining the events that led to the assassination and the investigation that followed, the National Civil Rights Museum hosts a number of exhibitions chronicling key episodes of the US civil rights movement and its legacy.

National Civil Rights Museum history

In 1945, Walter Bailey bought the site in Tennessee and named it for his wife Loree. The Lorraine Motel became upscale lodgings for black clientele during the segregation era. The motel served many notable musicians during the 1960s, including Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles – all visiting to Stax Records.

On April 4 1968, the African-American minister and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel by James Early Ray. King was rushed to the St Joseph’s Hospital nearby but died that evening. King had stayed at the motel so often he had a room named for him. It was outside this room on the balcony that King was shot whilst talking to Reverend Jesse Jackson.

The Lorraine Motel closed as a motel in March 1988, several months before Walter Bailey died. While Bailey did not live to see his efforts for establishing the museum become a reality, the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum foundation (set up in 1984) worked with the Smithsonian Institution to develop a museum design. Together, it was decided that historical aspects of the Lorraine Motel site would be retained.

The National Civil Rights Museum was dedicated on July 4 1991 and opened to the public in September that year. The museum also became the custodian of the bullet and rifle that killed King, which was exhibited in the former Young and Morrow Building acquired by the museum.

Since, there has been controversy over the number of white board members for the museum as well as examining how far the museum inspires action as well as providing a thorough history of the ongoing fight for civil rights.

National Civil Rights Museum today

Today, the National Civil Rights Museum offers 260 artefacts, over 40 films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts all to guide visitors through the history of African-American resistance. The displays cover around 500 years of history, from resistance to slavery through the Civil War and Jim Crow to the civil rights era.

Exhibitions to see include ‘A Culture of Resistance: Slavery in America 1619 – 1861’ and ‘What do we want? Black Power’, highlighting the longevity and shifting forms of the Black American resistance movement.

King’s room in the Lorraine Motel has been organised to look the way it did in 1968, as has the second floor apartment of the Legacy Building, from which he was shot. Ultimately, the museum has preserved the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination within an institution that aims to educate and encourage activism against systemic racism in America – an integral stop when visiting Tennessee.

Getting to the National Civil Rights Museum

Situated by the Mississippi River, the National Civil Rights Museum is just off US-78 road running through Tennessee. Memphis Central train station is only 2 blocks away and buses 100, 101, 39 and 57 will take you to within minutes walk of the museum.

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