365 Things to Do in Memphis #16: Observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Posted by Holly Whitfield | January 16th 2019 3948 0

Originally published in 2012. Updated 2019. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is the third Thursday in January every year. In 2019, it will be observed on January 21. It’s a chance to reflect, honor, and celebrate Dr. King’s legacy.

Assignment #16 on our 365 Things To Do In Memphis list is to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Memphis.

There are a plenty of ways to observe MLK Day in Memphis.

1. Volunteer your time. 
Usually, Memphis organizations coordinate volunteer efforts so the community can get involved. In 2019, Volunteer Memphis is hosting MLK Days of Service, with dozens of projects going on all weekend. You can sign up online.

2. Visit The National Civil Rights Museum
The NCRM is perhaps the most important attraction in Memphis. In terms of history and the city’s role in the worldwide struggle for civil rights, it’s a must-visit for visitors and locals alike. After its renovation and reopening in 2014, the NCRM does an even better job of telling that story with immersive, multimedia, and interactive exhibits that focus on the people behind a movement that continues today.

The museum is located at the Lorraine Motel in the South Main neighborhood of downtown Memphis It is free to observe the plaza and the balcony where Dr. King was standing when he was killed.

For the King Day celebration, the NCRM allows free entry. For 2019, you receive free entry to the museum when you bring and donate a canned good. They’ll also host a blood drive and other festivities and education.

Photo by Andrea Zucker.

3. Stop by the Mason Temple (930 Mason Street)
This is where Dr. King delivered the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the night before his assassination. You can read the speech or listen to a recording of Dr. King giving the speech here. For MLK Day in Memphis, make a stop to look at the building. It is currently the world headquarters for the Church of God In Christ.

I AM A MAN Plaza at Clayborn Temple. Photo by Logan Young.

4. Visit The I AM A MAN Plaza at Clayborn Temple (280 Hernando Street)
The “I AM A MAN” plaza, which is adjacent to Clayborn Temple across the street from FedExForum. If you haven’t been since it was installed in 2018, I encourage you to take a quiet moment and visit. It honors the people of the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike, the people who Dr. King traveled to Memphis to support before his assassination. Read a bit more here.

5. Take a Quick Visit MLK Reflection Park (2nd and MLK Ave.)
Opened as a part of MLK50 (the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in 2018) this park in downtown Memphis is home to the “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” sculpture, water features, and historical panels. It is only a block or two away from the National Civil Rights Museum and Clayborn Temple.

6. Visit The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum (826 N. Second St.)
Located at the former Burkle Estate, this antebellum home served as a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. Walk the floors of the home that was a part of this secret system, which aided escaped slaves in their journey out of the South long before Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement.

7. Memphis Grizzlies MLK Celebration Day
The Grizz almost always host a special MLK game and host other associated events, awards, and panels. In 2019, the annual MLK Day Celebration and Game is at FedExForum on Monday, Jan. 21 at 4:30 p.m. against the New Orleans Pelicans. Expect special honorees and halftime performances.

Photo provided by Dreamfest

8. DreamFest Weekend
DreamFest started as a one night show to mark Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but years later, it’s three nights with different shows, dozens of artists, and hundreds of music fans. For DreamFest 8 in 2019, there’s a concert on Friday night; music and panel discussions on Saturday night; and a special edition of Artistik Lounge music and spoken word on Sunday night. Event are $10 each and begin at 7 p.m. at the Minglewood Hall complex. Read more.

9. Take a Tour of Possibilities
While you may not be able to take this guided driving tour of the city on MLK Weekend, you should certainly add “A Tour of Possibilities” to your Memphis bucket list. The passionate, entertaining Carolyn Michael Banks will serve as your guide to several civil rights and African American points of interest around the city. Everyone is welcome on her tours, where she provides plenty of historic and musical context for each stop and the city in general.

10. Other community events.

There are plenty of other community events that mark MLK Day in Memphis or otherwise honor the civil rights history and current-day activism of our city. If you know of one, you can submit it to the calendar here.

A few for 2019:

– MLK Arts Unite, New Ballet Ensemble, Saturday, 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., free, all ages/kid-friendly
New Ballet and Hattiloo Theatre will host this free workshop for all ages on Saturday in honor of MLK Days of Service. Half-hour long workshops in dance, music, theatre, and spoken word. Kids 12 and under should have an adult with them. They are also collecting items for the Mariposas Collective. Read more on the FB event. The event is at 2157 York Avenue (behind Memphis Made).

– On Tuesday January 22, 2019, The University of Memphis will screen “Once More At The River: From MLK To BLM” at 6 p.m. at the UC Theater. It’s a documentary featuring 20 local activists reflecting 5o years of Memphis activism and looking to the future of social change. Read more here.

How will you observe and celebrate Martin Luther King Day in Memphis this year? What does the holiday mean to you? Let me know in the comments.

Author: Holly Whitfield

I write about what’s going on with Memphis music, food, arts, events, sports, people, and culture. Memphians love Elvis and barbeque with a passion that must be seen to be believed, but there is so much more to this place.

Show Comments


  1. Kinsey P says:

    Wow I did not realize the Civil rights museum was free on MLK day! That’s incredible. What a privilege for Memphians to have access to such an important museum. I’m so thankful for MLK’s impact on our world.

    • Holly Whitfield says:

      Pretty awesome, isn’t it? Did you know that “Tennessee residents with state-issued ID may visit the museum for free on Mondays from 3 p.m. until closing.”

      (Not applicable for tour groups and operators. Not available on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, April 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day or Veterans’ Day.)

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