When I made plans to go to Tennessee in April, I knew I’d be going to the National Civil Rights Museum for sure. I don’t know how you can visit Memphis in today’s day and age and NOT visit the National Civil Rights Museum. Not with this political environment (if you’re on the right side, and yes, there is a clear right side to be on nowadays).
On my first day in Memphis, I took a long walk down Main Street, which my hotel was directly off of, which turns into South Main Street somewhere right before you get to the National Civil Rights Museum. Once I saw how close my hotel was to it, I made the executive decision to go there first thing the next morning at 9am when they opened.
No sleep for the traveler, as they say.
I woke up extra early the next day and wandered down Main Street, grabbing a coffee and snapping photos on my way. I photographed all of the exhibits in the South Main Arts District walk that I could find and made my way to the Lorraine Hotel that houses the museum and saw tons of school-aged children meandering around, waiting for it to open. It opened within minutes of my arrival and I purchased a ticket and started my exploration.
The Lorraine Hotel is historic because it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. It was almost torn down completely in the years following after it had financial problems, but thanks to a local non-profit, it was saved in 1982 and converted into the National Civil Rights Museum that it is today.
The museum has numerous exhibits but it begins with a room about the long and infamous history of slavery in the world with a map on the floor, beneath our feet, and lines drawing from one continent to another, stating the years’ slaves were traded and what they were traded for.
The rest of the rooms went in the following order:
- Slavery in America
- Jim Crow Laws
- The Montgomery Bus Boycott
- The Diner Counter Sit-Ins
- What Traveling in the South Was Like
- Freedom Ride + the Bus Burning
- Albany, Mississippi Movement / Freedom Singers
- Birmingham, 1963
- March on Washington
- The 1964 Democratic Convention
- Selma Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Bloody Sunday
- Civil Rights Act of 1965
- Black Power Yesterday and Today
- Memphis Sanitation Strike
As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. In the building next door, there were exhibits about the search for MLK Jr’s assassin and the American Civil Rights legacy, as well as the Freedom Award recipients.
It’s no shocker for me to write that in America, we are seriously racist today and to say that this isn’t “who we are” is just a lie. This museum puts that all on display. We’ve been racist since we were founded. It was remarkable, and horrifying, to see how much progress we made in the 20th Century and yet how far back we’ve fallen in some ways and how much further we have to go to catch up to other civilized societies.
But before I digress into a political tirade, let me stop here and put some photos up and hope I’ve convinced you to check out this astonishing collection of America’s past if you’re ever in Memphis. Because seriously: you need to go and learn. (Even if, like me, you were lucky enough to have extensive education on the topic growing up.)