Lorraine Motel // Memphis, Tennessee // National Civil Rights Museum
Beginning February 11, 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee began protesting unfair working conditions for African American men imposed by mayor Henry Loeb. During this period, unequal wages between the white and black sanitation workers caused severe strife; these tensions rose after several workers died due to unnecessarily dangerous working conditions, coupled with a general disregard for the safety of African American workers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to Memphis to lend his support. Already a galvanizing figure in the Civil Rights Movement, the tragic events on the evening of April 4, 1968 immortalized King as a national symbol for what was wrong with the racial relationship in American society.
Stepping out of room 306, King stood on the balcony of the third floor of the Lorraine Motel. At 6:01 PM, King fell to the ground, after being hit by a .30-06 bullet fired from across the road in a nearby boarding house. The historic shot was taken by James Earl Ray. King's death ushered in a wave of emotion and a reinvigorated eagerness to continue in his path dedicated to restructuring power through devotion to end the era of Jim Crow segregation and racism. His death ushered in a transition away from the era of non-violent protest, yet renewed the focus on the Poor People's Campaign to end racial tensions in the South and America as a whole.
49 years, and 3 days later, Dr. Matthew Zimmerman, Micheal Williams, and myself traveled to Memphis to participate in the National Council of Undergraduate Research. In our off time, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum located at the famous, and sadly now infamous Lorraine Motel. Starting with trans-Atlantic slavery, the narrative of the museum’s exhibits shift through the Civil War and Reconstruction, into the era of Jim Crow segregation, and ending with a focus on the modern-day struggles and triumphs of the African Americans. The museum does a fine job displaying the horrors which African American men and women experienced in these periods, while also highlighting the numerous moments of resistance and perseverance that show the indominable spirit of these courageous Americans. From touch displays, to video monitors, the Museum attempts to display these periods in complex and provocative ways. The main tour culminates in room 306, offering visitors the powerful experience of standing mere feet from the exact spot where King fell. The emotions filled my heart, making me understand the troubles and tribulations that America experienced during the Civil Rights era. I highly recommend coming to Memphis, but more importantly, visiting the National Civil Rights Museum, keeping the public memory of Dr. King, along with the innumerable souls that participated in, and died during, the troubled past of people of African descent in America, alive and accessible to the public
Text by John Legg & Micheal Williams.