MLK’s hotel, as it was in 1968
Stand on the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. last stood.
Step outside the modern Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis and look across the street, and you’ll see an incongruous sight. There stands a two-story, concrete-block, green-and-white motel from another time, with a huge white wreath hanging from its second-story balcony. A boxy ‘60s-era white Cadillac and a finned Chevy are parked beneath it.
The wreath marks the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at age 39 on April 4, 1968, as he stood on that balcony outside his room, No. 306.
For years, the Lorraine Motel was one of the few places that allowed African American travelers to stay and enjoy a good meal. It was a regular stop for songwriters and musicians like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding when they were recording for Memphis’ famed Stax Records company. In town to suppport striking sanitation workers in the spring of 1968, Dr. King spent the last days — and last moments — of his life at the Lorraine, strategizing with close friends like Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.
The motel today houses the National Civil Rights Museum. Visitors have been invited to enter King’s room, which has been precisely recreated with artifacts from the era, and this year for the first time visitors can also tour the balcony where King was gunned down when James Earl Ray fired from a dilapidated rooming house across the street. In a gesture of respect and taste, the local community years ago replaced the concrete square stained with Dr. King’s blood.
The rooming house is also part of the museum today. It contains a new exhibit that allows visitors to see where Ray stayed, the bathroom window from which it is believed he fired, and evidence recovered at the scene that led to Ray’s capture and arrest. A gate at the entrance is inscribed with a prophetic quote from King’s “Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered the day before his assassination: “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
The museum’s many moving exhibits provide a detailed timeline of the civil rights struggle, concentrating on seminal events of the 1950s and 1960s. Included is a replica of the jail cell from which King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus where a figure of Rosa Parks is seated. When visitors try to sit down, they are admonished with shouts of, “Hey! You can’t sit there!” and “Go to the back of the bus!”
“We see visitors’ faces as they register the pain, the injustice and rejoice in every victory earned along the journey,” says a statement on the museum’s site. “We share their tears as they realize why leaders like Dr. King gave everything for the world we live in today.”
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Photos: Courtesy of www.civilrightsmuseum.org; Stephen Saks/Getty Images
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