Memorializing Tragedy: MLK and the Lorraine Motel

sign

Image via The National Civil Rights Museum

Forty-five years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Just days after King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and King’s legacy was cemented. His advocacy and activism not only advanced the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it influenced civil rights struggles world wide.

The Lorraine Motel and other buildings associated with King’s assassination were purchased in the early 80s and 90s by the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, and now house the National Civil Rights Museum.

040368MLKLorraine_t607

King was a frequent guest at the Lorraine Motel, one of the few hotels open to African Americans during the 1960s. Image via CommercialAppeal.com

Fortunately, the owner of the Lorraine, Walter Bailey, recognized the significance of the motel to the history of the Civil Rights Movement early on. After the assassination of King, he maintained rooms 306 and 307 (those used by King and his entourage)  as a shrine to the activist’s memory, even as the motel suffered a long and steep decline. When the motel was threatened by foreclosure and demolition, he reached out for help to maintain the property as a civil rights memorial and the Save The Lorraine campaign was born.  A group of concerned citizens formed the Martin Luther King Foundation (later called the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation).  The Foundation raised enough funds to purchase the motel at auction on the courthouse steps, saving it from sure destruction. Using the design recommendations of a former Smithsonian Institution curator, the Foundation  created the educational facility and memorial site that today is the National Civil Rights Museum.

lorraine

The historical Lorraine Motel (c. 1925 and 1945) has been beautiful preserved as The National Civil Rights Museum. (The cars in the courtyard are meant to orient visitors to the time period – they were not owned or used by Dr. King).  Image via Julie’s National Parks

The museum complex is comprised of the Lorraine Motel, former Canipe’s Amusement store and rooming house, and the empty lot in between. The properties were an integral part of Dr. King’s assassination investigation. The museum became custodian of the police and evidence files associated with the manhunt, indictment and confession of the assassin of Dr. King in the late 1990s.  Many of the items, including the rifle and fatal bullet, are on display at the museum.

As one might suspect, the use of the motel to memorialize King and the Civil Rights Movement has not been without controversy.  Using the site where the civil rights leader was slain has been called insensitive and morbid. It has also been faulted for causing gentrification surrounding the museum, forcing the traditionally low-income African American population out of their homes – something antithetical to King’s teachings.

MLKRIP

This iconic photograph was taken just moments after King was shot. Image via the Washington Post

Despite the controversy, it is difficult to deny that the link between Martin Luther King, Jr., the Lorraine Hotel, and the Civil Rights Movement is strong. No one can forget the iconic image of  King’s prostrate body on the second floor balcony surrounded by a group of people pointing toward the boarding house  – an event that was followed by turmoil and a long, contentious investigation.

What do you think? Is the Lorraine Motel an appropriate site for the National Civil Rights Museum? Is it insensitive or morbid to preserve it for visitors to experience? Or is it a powerful and moving place from which to discuss the Civil Rights Movement in America and one of its most beloved leaders?

The Lorraine Motel is designated an historic site by the Tennessee Historical Commission. More than $3 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 1991.

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Concerned professional

    I don’t believe it is morbid for this place to be a museum. Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, is also a museum and no one thinks that is morbid. I would argue that both men could be considered equally influential in our nation’s history so what’s the difference? People are less comfortable with tragic events that happened closer to the present but that doesn’t mean that the history that made these places iconic shouldn’t be preserved.

    • bricksandmortarpreservation

      I think you hit on something. I think it has a lot to do with how recent the tragedy occurred.

      I’d never given the memorization of tragedy much thought until I read an article about the demolition of Lee Harvey Oswald’s apartment building a few months ago. The article mentioned Dallas’ struggle to memorialize the assassination of JFK. In its immediate aftermath, some wanted a memorial and others wanted to disassociate Dallas from the event. It took decades to resolve the issues and it is something that Dallas continues to struggle with.

      Conversely, Ford’s Theater wasn’t associated with a memorial to Lincoln until the 1940s. In the meantime, it was used as a facility for the US military, then a government warehouse, and was then left vacant for several decades. It wasn’t opened to the public until 1968 after major restoration – more than 100 years after the assassination.

      So I think you are probably right – the reason some people find memorials to JFK and MLK at the points of their assassinations distasteful, while no one seems to mind Ford’s Theater, probably has a lot to do with how recently they occurred.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s