Anyway, we turned the corner on to Mulberry Street just south of bustling, prosperous downtown Memphis, and there it was! We immediately recognized the sign. It had been burned into our memories from watching original news coverage and countless documentaries produced since that fateful day in April, 1968. It hasn’t changed a bit in 43 years.
Architecturally, Lorraine is typical of post-World War II motel construction: room boxes stacked two stories high. Parking outside room doors on the first level. A 5-foot wide walkway-balcony provides access to rooms on the second level.
The exterior hasn’t changed a bit except for the large white wreath outside Room #306. If there was any doubt in our minds, it was gone. This is where it happened.
The Lorraine now serves as the entrance to the National Civil Rights Museum. Exhibit space wraps itself around the original motel. A pleasant host welcomed us. It’s a school day so lots of children and youth are on tour. Some teens walked quickly and talked loudly, more concerned with the present than the past. This is their grandparent’s history, not theirs. But won’t the future look like the past if one only lives in the present? Younger, more easily constrained and contained children are shushed by parents and teachers. This is holy ground.
Our tour opens with a 25-minute video: The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306. It’s narrated by Mrs. Maxine Smith (NAACP), Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee The Rev. Benjamin Hooks and The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles (Memphis Pastor and local host for Dr. King on his fateful visit). Sniffles and sobs are audible as the audience exits.
Exhibits begin the story with the introduction of slavery into North America. There is a brief review of the Middle Passage, Ante Bellum slavery, Abolitionist movement, and Jim Crow era. When we reach the 1950s (Emmitt Till, Brown vs. Board of Education and Little Rock), the pace slows and exhibit space increases to capture the events that comprise the Civil Rights era.
Those 50 and older settle into a pace of re-living all the events and horrors of the 1950s and 1960s. The dialectic is played out over and over: scenes of Nonviolence followed by Violence. Whatever the thesis: boycott or sit in, voter registration drive or peaceful assembly, the antithesis is the same: beatings, bombings, water hoses, German Shepherds, mass arrests.
I confess to having forgotten that following passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964, Dr. King became increasingly concerned with economic opportunity. That’s why he was in Memphis in April, 1968. He was there to support sanitation workers in their efforts for higher pay and opportunity for advancement.
With all these images, I sort of lost track of time and space. Upon turning the corner after watching Dr. King’s “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” sermon, I froze. I was there. I WAS THERE! Looking out the window onto the balcony where he fell, not 5-feet away. To my right was Room #306 – I could see into it, the wallboard having been replaced with a 20-foot panel of glass. Straight ahead, across the street, slightly to the right. Yes, there it was. A small window, raised perhaps 4 – 6 inches. Plenty of space on the sill to rest a .30-06.
I was less than satisfied with the Museum from this point. After viewing Room #306, we were led downstairs to a small exhibit on Mahatma Gandhi sponsored by Memphis’ Indian community. From there it was a few steps to the gift shop and then across the street to view the apartment from which James Earl Ray murdered Dr. King. Exhibits in this space depicted forensic evidence, the hunt for and capture of Ray, and alternative theories for who was involved in the murder.
But, my question went unanswered… worse, it went unasked. Did the dream die on April 4, 1968?
I guess it’s a question each of us needs to ask ourselves. They may have killed “The Dreamer,” but the Dream can live on. Only now, it’s up to us. It’s up to each of us to decide how we will give our lives to give life to the Dream.