365 Things to Do in Memphis #16: Observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Originally published in 2012. Updated 2020
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is on Monday, January 20th, 2020. 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 2020, Volunteer Memphis will MLK Days of Service, with dozens of projects going on all weekend.
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 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Expect crowds and street closures near the museum. The Museum also hosts performances and activities outside the museum, and will be accepting donations of money and food for the Mid-South Food Bank; Vitalant (formerly Lifeblood) will host a blood drive on site, too.
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.
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 2020, the annual MLK Day Celebration and Game is at FedExForum on Monday, Jan. 20 at 4 p.m. against the New Orleans Pelicans. The team will honor Sheryl Swoopes, Doug Williams, Robert parish, and Caron Butler. Leslie Odom, Jr. of Hamilton fame will perform at halftime.
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 9 in 2020, there’s a concert on Friday night; more music on Saturday night; and an industry networking event on Sunday night. Event are $10 each and begin at 7 p.m. 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 aka “Queen” 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. MLK Arts Unite, New Ballet Ensemble (2157 York Ave. behind Memphis Made), Saturday, 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., free, all ages/kid-friendly
New Ballet Ensemble hosts their annual MLK Arts Unite fest on Saturday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Take part in dance and music workshops, enjoy food from Just Wraps and Mempops, and bring donations of winter clothes for the Mariposas Collective.
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. Stop by the six-story civil rights mural at MLK and Main Street, too.
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.