I was in Memphis in the very early ’80s and had done the obligatory tourist sightseeing between my professional meetings: to Graceland where I had my photo taken at that historic gate, to Sun Studio where Elvis recorded and to Beale Street where I spent half a night listening to the bluesmen. I then decided it was time to take one of the city bus tours to get an overview of the city.
I paid my fare and joined several dozen other visitors to Memphis. We headed out, and as I looked at the itinerary, I noticed that the Lorraine Motel was not on the list.
At the time, I was academic dean of Southeast Kentucky Community College, and I had long ago gotten over the crippling shyness I had experienced as a child, had discovered in junior high that life was much more pleasurable when I participated actively and expressed my opinions.
So from somewhere seated midway in the tour bus, I in a loud voice (or in a volume-appropriate voice as I tell my students in the classes in communication I teach at Edison State) asked the driver, “Is there a reason the Lorraine Motel is not on the itinerary?”
“No, ma’am, we don’t go there.”
“But that’s an important part of Memphis history.”
“Be that as it may, we won’t be going there.”
“This is a democracy. We’ve paid for a tour of Memphis. All of you who want to go to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered, raise your hand.”
They did, and we went.
450 Mulberry Street was very different then and even more so in Dr. King’s day as the Lorraine Motel was one of the places listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guide to accommodation for African American traveling to places in our country where they would not be turned away from lodging, meals or other services because of their race/ethnicity.
Modest as the accommodations at the Lorraine were, they were far superior to the ones Dr. King experienced in 1963 when he wrote his famous “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” He had been arrested and imprisoned for peacefully demonstrating against racism and segregation. Many of today’s college students have read that famous essay, which he began on scraps of newspaper in response to clergy who had published a piece criticizing him and the demonstrators and maintaining that the fight for justice should be taking place in the courts and not in the streets.
In that essay, Dr. King’s words ring true today and need our attention as we face a host of issues in our country such as voter suppression, the lack of adequate health care, housing, schooling for our most vulnerable, verbal and physical assaults on those consider “other.” In that essay, Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
College students also study the famous “I Have a Dream “ speech revered as the number one speech in 20th century America, based not only on its rhetorical excellence but also on its social and political impact.
As I stood at the Lorraine Motel in the very early ’80s, I envisioned the black-and-white film I had seen often of the activity back in 1968 following the assassination.
Controversy followed the assassination. Was James Earl Ray the shooter? Did he have a co-conspirator? Was the U.S.S.R. involved? What about the role of J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.? It was not until June of 2000 that the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that Ray acted alone.
Attempts to discredit Dr. King were rampant, designed to make him less than what he was. Was the nation aware of Dr. King’s extramarital affairs? Had he plagiarized parts of his dissertation? Was he an Uncle Tom?
As we celebrate MLK Day on Jan. 21 this year, let’s ask ourselves: If he was so inconsequential, why are he and George Washington the only Americans who have a national holiday in their honor?
Yes, a close analysis has shown that parts of his dissertation were not properly documented. How many were back in the days before the Internet and the OWL program at Purdue University? Just read his letter from the Birmingham City Jail that he wrote with access to no resources if you question his ability to write, to present an exemplary argument.
Did he have extramarital affairs? Yes, but …
Have his children sometimes behaved in ways that would have embarrassed him? Yes.
The National Civil Rights Museum is now at the spot where Dr. King died, and his Room 306 remains as it was on April 4, 1968.
I’ll visit the monument to Dr. King open to the public in 2011 the next time I’m in D.C., and I’ll read the words, “Out of the mountains of despair, a stone of hope.” Of course, I’ll remember all the conflict and compromise involved in getting this project completed as this seems to be the American way, but I’ll be mindful of the devotion of this man, a mere human being, to causes that many of us would not even attempt – and I will be humbled.