There are moments in history that stand out on the timeline of world events. On April 4, 1968, the world would be forever changed by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our short time in Memphis limited our ability to tour the National Civil Rights Museum, but we still carved out time for a visit to the site of this heinous act against humanity. On a Sunday morning, we found the museum closed, but there are still plenty of outdoor exhibits to make a visit educational and worthwhile. For us, it was gaining perspective about the life of a man who helped change the course of America’s future.
The warm summer sunshine cast its first rays across the lawn of the Lorraine Motel. The complex of historic buildings, that make up the National Civil Rights Museum, features this historic lodge. Built in 1925, the structure changed names a couple of times, with the name Lorraine being applied in 1945. Life during the segregation period was difficult for blacks traveling throughout the United States. Walter Bailey had purchased the property with the idea of creating an upscale lodging option for black clientele. Originally constructed with only 16 rooms, Bailey added a second floor and swimming pool.
Haven for Rest
His project worked, and soon the Lorraine Motel would become a haven for those looking to rest from their travels. Memphis saw an explosion of population growth that moved the city from 100,000 in 1900 to nearly 400,000 by 1950. Fueled by this rapid growth, many industries took a foothold in Memphis. Music has long been associated with the city and many famous artists are from this birthplace of rock ‘n roll. During the 1960s, artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding would seek shelter at the Lorraine Motel. Often, they were in town for work being performed at Stax Records.
Lay of the Land
Just about six blocks from the Mississippi River, we located the National Civil Rights Museum. Parking was found less than a block away, as there were no crowds on an early Sunday morning. Turning the corner that led to the motel’s courtyard, we found signage that laid out the key displays. We wished our timing had been different, as we would have loved to tour the interior exhibits. Fortunately, they have made sure that visitors can have an educational experience at any time. Scattered around the museum courtyard is a series of kiosks that offer audio-video excerpts about the days leading up to the fateful assassination.
The quiet morning was actually a perfect time to visit. Martin Luther King Jr. had arrived in Memphis in early 1968. He was there to support the striking black sanitation workers. During this visit, he was booked in room 306, at the Lorraine Motel. On the evening of April 4th, King stepped out onto the motel balcony. At 6:01, a shot rang out that would change the history of America. We stood there looking up at the balcony where King was assassinated. We had learned on another trip, that the assassin James Earl Ray, had escaped less than a year earlier from the Missouri State Penitentiary. Now that we were at the scene of the assassination, we were gaining perspective of the atmosphere in America during these tumultuous times.
The heinous act created a shockwave through the Civil Rights movement. Race riots would flare up in major cities all across America. Many of the civil rights leaders called out for a non-violent action, which was the approach used for decades by Martin Luther King Jr. The city of Memphis resolved the sanitation worker’s strike in favorable terms for the laborers. President Lyndon Johnson attempted to calm the rising storm by reaching out to leaders from all sides. King’s wife, Coretta, continued his worthwhile work until her death in 2006. The name of Martin Luther King Jr. has become synonymous with peaceful change.