Civil Rights Museum & Martin Luther King – Memphis, Tennessee
Historic sites should act as both monument and learning tool; no matter how confronting. If there is an argument for historic preservation, it is that these treasured places have the ability to teach, inform and inspire. Historic sites enrich our culture, inform the mind and touch the soul.
Looking through these windows in time gives us as a society the rare ability to take a look back, see where we were, and often times where we’re headed, hopefully bringing some form of clarity to the future.
While there are many moments in history that reverberate through time – events that have both stained our history and enriched it, we must work to ensure that all of our histories are saved – the good along with the bad.
There are the great moments of human and technological transformation – the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903; Apollo 11 and the first moon landing in 1969 – moments like these and many others have inspired millions, allowing the world to stop for a short time, to dream of the new horizons that now seemed to be within their grasp.
Sadly too, there is a darker side to world history, events that have stained our past and tested our humanity. These periods must also not be forgotten as they too alter our course, allowing us to forge new paths. A moment of tragedy can become the catalyst for change, and hope for healing and enlightenment.
One of these tragic moments in history is the premature death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With the slaying of Dr. King the civil rights movement was again met with the brutal realities of the day. I am often moved with emotion for various reasons when travelling but when I stood in front of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, surveying the site where King was assassinated, the feeling was palpable.
Even though this terrible event happened a world away from my place of birth in Perth, Western Australia and six years before I was born, standing at this spot made the gravity of this tragic event become real for me, as if that murderous moment was frozen in time.
While the moment filled me with sorrow and pain for a great life so tragically lost, I also felt a glimmer of hope and even pride in the courageous people who kept Martin Luther King Jr’s dream alive. I was thankful too that this tragedy could be memorialised and the site preserved in such a realistic way, hopefully, to become a lesson in history for future generations where they too can learn about King and his life and about the broader theme of discrimination and its horrible and tragic legacy.
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King and his associates were at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to support the sanitation workers in their struggle for equality, fair treatment, higher wages and better working conditions at the Mason Temple, the Church of God and Christ headquarters. Dr. King was there to make the now famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech to the workers who had been on strike for almost four weeks.
The following evening on April 4, 1968, Dr. King and his associates were preparing for another speech event from his room at the Lorraine Motel, which they were now running late for. Sadly, King was never able to give that speech.
As he stepped out from room 306 at 6:01pm a single gunshot rang out from a second-floor window of the boarding house across the street. The bullet entered through his right cheek, shattering his jaw, severing his spinal cord and lodging firmly in his left shoulder.
Fatally injured, Dr. King lay bleeding on the balcony outside his modest room at the Lorraine Motel. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital for emergency surgery where he was sadly pronounced dead at 7:05pm. The Lorraine Motel is still a reminder of that terrible day.
Civil Rights Museum Complex
Today the motel is part of the Civil Rights Museum. The Lorraine Motel still looks the same as it did on that April day in 1968, two identical cars sit outside of King’s room, parked in the same spot, as if still waiting to drive off into 1960’s Memphis.
Photographs from the day are numerous as there was a press photographer in the room just next door to King that night. From these images, The Lorraine Motel and the horrific scene itself were chronicled.
With the street now closed, visitors enter the Civil Rights Museum in front of the hotel. The boarding house where James Earl Ray was staying makes up much of the museum. When you enter the underground walkway to the museum you are presented with a timeline along the walls that encapsulates the history of the civil rights movement.
The tour starts on the third floor as visitors make their way down, through the displays. There are many exhibits, profiles, information and educational areas, plus short films offering snippets of the many historic events in the struggle for civil rights.
James Earl Ray
Part of the boarding house is preserved to illustrate the assassin’s location. You can read about the investigation and case against the perpetrator, James Earl Ray, and the worldwide search for him that ensued. His boarding house room is still as it was the day he fled the scene, seemingly untouched with some personal items still remaining.
The bathroom from where it’s believed James Earl Ray fired the fateful shot is also preserved, encased by glass. Chillingly, the view is still the same, overlooking room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, now marked with a reef.
On display are the rifle and other personal effects offering a glimpse into the killer’s life. This display has been controversial over the years with some people claiming that the displays dedicated to James Earl Ray are taking away from the story about King and his life. Others proclaim it a necessary and important part of the history.
The Lorraine Motel
The entry ticket includes a walk around the Lorraine Motel balcony. Visitors are able to glimpse inside room 306, the room where King was staying. A look into this room is like a look back in time, back to that same night when King was there – coffee cups waiting to be used, room service trays thoughtlessly pushed aside, a newspaper from the day sits on the bed waiting to be read, the furnishings and bed linens from the time decorating the room – it’s as if time stood still.
It’s an overwhelming feeling to be transported to 1968 in this way, remembering the horrible event that took place outside this modest room. It is a place well-preserved and one of reflection and remembrance. This museum is a great dedication to the spirit and courage of everyone involved in the civil rights movement.
I highly recommend taking a trip to Memphis for this tour. Part of travelling the world for me is learning something new, not only about the destination and its culture but about humanity and its personal struggles. Walking these grounds had a profound effect on me and was sobering to the soul. It’s humbling to learn of the sacrifices that so many have made so that future generations can live free from discrimination.
Address: 450 Mulberry Street, Memphis, TN
Opening hours: Wednesday to Monday 9am-6pm. Closed Tuesday.
Admission price: $16 adults, $14 Seniors/students, $13 children 5-17. Children under 5 are free, as are members and active military with ID. Tennessee residents with state-issued ID may visit the museum for free on Mondays from 3 p.m. until closing. Please note prices and opening times correct at date of publish