Saturday, April 4 was the 41st anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. The White Privilege Conference took place at a Hilton hotel WAY out of town near nowhere other than a Benihana restaurant. I had no car and a taxi cost $35 each way to downtown. It was easy to justify staying at the conference attending workshops, learning, discussing privilege and how it affects our everyday lives. I said as much on my Facebook page.
My friend Brad responded to let me know its okay to skip Graceland (though I likely won’t get the Paul Simon song out of my head anytime soon) but the Lorraine Motel was a must. He offered to pay for my cab. “You must see it!” he wrote. “Really, don’t miss it.”
It turns out that Michael, my roommate for the conference, had wheels. He’d driven close to 700 miles to bring himself and two students to the conference. The four of us decided to skip Saturday morning at the conference and drive downtown to the Lorraine, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Without question it was the right choice. After Dr. King’s death the Lorraine plunged into a downward spiral. Much like Memphis, I suspect, it would understandably never be the same. A group of Memphians formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation and began the work that resulted in the 1991 opening of the museum and the 1999 purchase of the properties across the street from which the shot was fired that killed Dr. King.
The tour began with a showing of the 2009 Academy Award nominated documentary short film The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, the story of Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, the one person who stood next to Dr. King on the balcony when he was shot.
One of the most powerful experiences for me was stepping onto a bus inside the museum and seeing the cast figure of Rosa Parks sitting resolute, knowing that three other black folks in her row had left their seats so a white person could have a seat with no black folks in the same row. Mrs. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was a defining moment, a turning point, in the civil rights movement.
Soon, standing behind the glass partition that has been erected between rooms 306 and 307 just a few feet from where Dr. King was shot took that horrible event from 41 years ago and brought it powerfully into my present.
We walked across the street to the building from which many believe the fatal shot was fired. Looking back across the street toward the Lorraine I’m reminded of the feeling I’ve had at other significant historical sites. It is all so small. Plymouth Rock, Dealey Plaza, the Lorraine Motel; the scale is all so very human. The choice to perpetrate either harm or healing is always a human one.
Dr. King’s life, and his death, changed America. Horror resulted in hope. One of the most rewarding decisions I made this weekend was to visit the Lorraine Motel. Thanks for the encouragement, Brad.