Museums don’t just house collections of art and artifacts – they are living, breathing spaces with the capacity to stoke and inform difficult conversations about the world. Perhaps no museums are more necessary to these conversations than civil rights museums, which do the challenging and important work of chronicling some of the most troubling chapters of human history.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’re taking a look at four of the best civil rights museums around the United States. Consider adding these institutions to your next trip itinerary – we guarantee that they’ll change your perspective on the world.
International Civil Rights Center and Museum
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum (ICRCM) honors the legacy of four young college students who fought to desegregate the Woolworth lunch counter in 1960. The ICRCM is located in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, and hosts a permanent exhibition known as The Battlegrounds, which utilizes audio and video narratives, as well as artifacts, images, and interactive experiences to transport visitors back in time. The museum is located in the building that formerly Woolworth’s, so visitors can interact with the actual space where the sit-in occurred.
National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, is made up of a number of museums and historic buildings that cover the history of civil rights in the United States, from the seventeenth century until present day. The NCRM encompasses the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, and underwent extensive renovations in 2014.
There are a number of permanent and revolving exhibits at the NCRM which take visitors through hundreds of years of history. Among the most moving permanent exhibits are A Culture of Resistance, which traces the history of slavery in the Americas, and We Are Prepared To Die, which discusses the stories of the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. You can also visit the motel room that Dr. King used before his death, as well as the building where James Earl Ray confessed to shooting Dr. King.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is both interpretive museum and research center. The museum includes a walking journey through a “living institution,” which displays lessons from the past as well as new directions for the future. All of the permanent exhibitions are self-directed, which allows visitors to chart their own way through Birmingham’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. The Institute also contains extensive archives that serve as resources for educators and researchers.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights chronicles both the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggle for human rights across the world. The museum opened in 2014 and is located in downtown Atlanta. Like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights hosts both permanent and temporary exhibits.
Among the permanent exhibits are Voice to the Voiceless, which contains letters and papers from Dr. King’s life, including drafts of Dr. King’s seminal works, “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “Drum Major Instinct, and Spark of Conviction, which chronicles the fight for human rights around the world. Spark of Conviction contains a particularly moving interactive piece where visitors can choose a particular trait they have (like their gender or skin color) and see how they would be persecuted for that trait around the world.
Civil Rights museums are great places to start (or continue) difficult conversations. Have you been to one of these museums? Or another civil rights museum not on this list? Tell us about your experience in the comments.