Today is April 4, 2019. Fifty-one years ago today, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony outside of his room, 306, at the Lorraine Motel, located at 450 Mulberry St., in Memphis, Tenn. In the time since then, the Lorraine Motel has been turned into a museum, the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes artifacts, displays and exhibits about the quest for civil rights for black people in America, including the reason Dr. King was in Memphis that April 1968, supporting Memphis’ African-American sanitation workers who were on strike.
I went to the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum for the first time in January, and I can say, without question, it was the most emotional experience I’ve ever had at a museum. I’ve been to African-American history museums near and far, and if I’m in a city and there is a black museum, I make it a point to go. Some are more difficult than others, almost intentionally—I will never forget walking through the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit with my daughter and how they make you walk through black history, including the hull of a slave ship with slave mannequins stacked up alongside one another—literally, it was #DisTewMuch. Others are easier to digest.
But the Lorraine.
It felt different almost from the beginning. As I walked up on the museum and saw its physical presence and location, it felt almost surreal. For starters, it’s so much smaller than it lives in my mind because of its significance. You almost forget that it was an actual motel. I got caught up in the history and the sadness and more or less paced back and forth the length of the museum for about 10 minutes, working myself up to go inside. I couldn’t stop staring at the balcony; there’s a wreath that hangs on the railing where King was felled.
The museum itself, good lawd. I don’t know how else to describe it other than this: It’s almost as if they put every single artifact in there that could piss you off, in succession, over and over. The section on education had me so far into my feelings that I literally busted out laughing and had to sit down and collect myself because I got so enraged. It features actual letters written to school boards and cartoons used at the time to try to convince the nation that desegregation would basically ruin white America. It was the most frustrating experience and I could feel myself getting more and more heated.
Sometimes I think that many of us have no idea what our parents who came up in the South really had to deal with, especially in the ’50s and ’60s. Like, we know it was terrible and that the nation and white people in particular were a special breed of horrible, but to see the proof so unapologetically available and so much of it had me looking at every white person as if the only movie I’d ever seen in life was Rosewood, and I’ve seen it 1,000 times and I always hope they don’t...you know what, never mind. I’m getting mad thinking about Rosewood now.
The torched-out bus that housed the Freedom Riders, the stories about how even HBCU presidents tried to stifle the students in hopes of not pissing off white people, and the battles many students dealt with, all in such detail, were a lot. There were so much “a lot” that when I got on a makeshift bus with a Rosa Parks statue sitting there refusing to give up her seat, I actually hugged her. And dapped her up. I was mad that this statue had to sit there every day. Mind you, all of this is before you even get to the hotel room and the balcony where Dr. King was killed. But you inch closer and closer; the hotel takes you on a winding path through Dr. King’s own path and our history and you get to see Dr. King’s politics change a bit as he becomes more radicalized and the causes he took on and the reactions to them.
As we got closer to the point where I realized I was about to see his hotel room and the spot on the balcony up close, I felt myself getting more fidgety. I was almost...almost...afraid to see it. I wasn’t sure how I’d react emotionally, but I got in line, waiting for my turn and passed by little facts that until then, I’d never thought of. For instance, literally right before he was shot and killed, Dr. King requested that Ben Branch, a tenor saxophonist and Memphis native who was in town to perform at a rally for the striking sanitation workers, play his favorite song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” King asked him to “play it real pretty,” to which Branch said, “You know I will, Doc.” King was standing on the balcony and Branch was in the parking lot below.
And then he was shot.
That fact almost took me out as I was standing there reading it. And then I walked up to the window to see the spot, and I just started crying. I couldn’t even stop myself. I stared at the balcony. I was so mad, angry, sad, flustered, anxious and, ultimately, so defeated that I couldn’t hold it in. Even looking at the hotel room, it was so simple and plain. It looms so large but it really was a simple room. And the balcony itself was so small. But that’s where “they” killed him. A man who wanted nothing more than to be viewed as a human and for others to have that same opportunity. And America got him.
I had to gather myself when it was all over. I really had to sit for a few. I set up my day so that I could visit the Lorraine and, assuming that I’d be in my feelings, visit the Stax Museum after because music and one of my favorite labels would make me feel better. I wasn’t wrong. But the experience at the Lorraine has stayed with me and I imagine it always will. It really affected me and left a mark. I’m going back to Memphis, and part of me wants to go visit again, but it might be too soon.
What I do know is that my experience was such that I will never forget how I felt there. And that’s what I think many museums want you to take away. The National Civil Rights Museum achieved this goal.
R.I.P., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.