By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It’s a city where kings of every kind have come and gone. B.B. King, Elvis and even the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, once reigned in this predominantly Black city off the Mississippi river.
To the city’s Black residents, the greatest king of them all was at the center of a tragic event that embarrassed Memphis officials in 1968. Now, 50 years later, the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is expected to attract thousands to Memphis, packing hotels and ironically, boosting the city’s tourism industry which has already been experiencing a comeback.
King’s birthday is January 15. He would have been 89 years old this year. His killer, James Earl Ray, died in 1998.
Preparations are in full swing as Memphis prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in a significant way.
The Lorraine Motel will once again be in the global spotlight, as it was 50 years ago when King was gunned down outside his motel room. Five decades later, the Lorraine Motel is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum where visitor attendance is expected to soar.
Among the events planned, there will be a march from City Hall to Clayborn Temple—the place where King gave his final, but famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the day before he was killed. There will also be a string of seminars and other events to honor the only Black leader to have a national holiday established in his memory. The city’s basketball team, the Memphis Grizzlies, will wear special uniforms on King’s birthday in memory of the slain Civil Rights leader.
Hotels and tourism are rising in Memphis. The city is making over its convention center with a $175 million renovation. Kevin Kern, vice president of communications for the Memphis Visitors and Convention Bureau, is expecting visitors to fill up the city’s 20,000 hotel rooms and pump millions of dollars into the Memphis economy. He advises visitors to book early if they plan to come to Memphis on April 4.
“This is not an annual event that happens every year,” Kern told the Crusader. “We believe April 4 will create a broad sense of awareness for the National Civil Rights Museum.”
However, in the middle of all the activity is the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination and once a Black-owned establishment just south of the city’s downtown area.
The motel is a piece of Black history almost everyone knows about and one that reminds Memphis of an ugly past. From textbooks to news clips, millions of Americans—Black and white, young and old—know about the Lorraine Motel, particularly outside Room 306, where on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.
A single gunshot smashed his right jawbone, causing massive blood loss. His murder sparked violent days in Memphis, Chicago and in nearly every major city where racial tensions were a problem.
Today, Memphis is a predominantly Black city known for its blues, barbeque and funky vibe on Beale Street.
The Lorraine Motel, once a painful reminder of a tumultuous period, is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum contains an extensive collection of documents, artifacts and exhibits that dramatize the plight of Blacks during the 1960s. Since last April, the museum has held a series of events leading up to 2018 and the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.
For Memphis, commemorating the 50th anniversary will be an emotional time, rekindling painful memories as thousands revisit the final moments of King’s life at the Lorraine Motel on the balcony outside Room 306. Presently, visitors can view King’s Room 306, as it was when he was killed.
The motel is a relic that despite its painful memories has endured, along with the rooming house across the street, from which Ray is believed to have fired the shot that killed King.
Though known as a city that prides itself on fun and good times, recognizing the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination will cast a solemn mood over a city long embarrassed by the tragic event. For Memphians, the Lorraine Motel remains not only a relic, but a humbling reminder of what their city once was.
Built in 1925 at a time when Blacks—prominent or not—could not sleep at segregated hotels, the Lorraine Motel was purchased by Walter Bailey in 1945 and he renamed it for his wife, Loree, and the popular song, “Sweet Lorraine.”
Entertainers Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, and Wilson Pickett, were among the notable guests who stayed at the Lorraine.
In her memoir, “My Life, My Love and My Legacy,” King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, said her husband stayed at the Lorraine Motel after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover accused King of living lavishly in a Holiday Inn in a more affluent part of Memphis.
Following King’s assassination, Room 306 where King died and the adjoining Room 307, were taken out of service as a memorial to the activist leader.
Hours after the assassination, Bailey’s wife suffered a stroke and died five days later. In the following years, the motel catered to low-income guests and poor residents and rented rooms on a long-term basis. Over time, the motel’s owner experienced economic hardship and the motel fell into disrepair. Bailey later embarked on a “Save the Lorraine” campaign, but lost the property to foreclosure in 1982.
The Lorraine Motel and surrounding buildings were saved when the National Civil Rights Museum was established in 1991. The swimming pool at the Lorraine Motel is no longer there, but the museum offers interactive exhibits, historic collections, dynamic speakers, and special events. It also provides visitors an opportunity to walk through history and learn more about a tumultuous and inspiring period of change.
In 2013 and 2014, the museum underwent a $27.5 million upgrade, adding more than 40 new films, oral histories and interactive media.
The National Civil Rights Museum continues to attract diverse crowds. One guest, Eugene from Oregon, said the museum is, “somber, informative, illustrative, and real. This is somewhere that all Americans and any world citizen should visit. We have come so far as a nation with racism. And we are still such a racist nation. There’s more work to be done and visiting this place will give anyone a sense of worldly responsibility in today’s global and political climate.”
For more information on Memphis events marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of King, go to mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org.