One of the last stops on our Freedom Ride Class was Memphis, Tennessee. There we visited Lorraine Motel, infamous as the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968. He was in Memphis to help organize and support a march for striking sanitation workers, who were being paid wages so low that they could work a full forty hour week and still qualify for welfare supplemental income from the government.
The Lorraine Motel now stands as a civil rights museum in memory of King. The museum has a timeline that starts with the 1619 arrival of slaves in English America and ends in the late 20th century. King’s motel room, the last place he stayed before the assassination is at the end of the museum, and was reconstructed to look like it did when he when he slept there the last night of his life.
The feature of the museum that sent chills down my back was the documentary movie “The Witness.” The movie followed King from his last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” to his assassination. It allowed me to see and hear him make his final speech. One thing that sticks with me is his ominous phrase: “I may not get there with you.” King knew his assassination was a matter of “when not if”. King talks about how he wants to be remembered: as a man that tried to help others. He wished for a simple and humble burial as he tried to live his life.
There is debate as to whether King’s wishes were respected. Some activists point out that King would not have wanted the Lorraine Motel to become a massive multi-million dollar museum in his honor. Other places, such as King’s home in Atlanta, have also undergone massive renovations in order to become museums in his honor. Activist Jacqueline Smith, the last resident of Lorraine Motel, has been protesting the Lorraine Motel museum now for nearly twenty five years. She has created a protest camp on the street across from the Lorraine Motel where she educates museum goers on her position. She points to King’s writings and his biography for the proof that King would not have approved of what she describes as the commercialization of his legacy to benefit people other than the lower income families he sought to help during his life.
The other side of the debate points to the merit of making some of these landmarks museums. Museums like the Lorraine Motel have educated thousands about the civil rights movement and more generally civil rights. Without historical centers like the Lorrain Motele or the King home in Atlanta, history would be lost as these buildings would be used for something else or possibly destroyed. Beyond telling the history of the civil rights movements these centers serve an even more important purpose: teaching how to keep the civil rights struggle moving forward. It is hard to look at the struggle of black Americans trying to gain equal rights and not draw parallels with our present day civil rights struggle: gay rights and immigrant rights. Maybe if more people went to museums like the Lorrain Motel and its message of equality for everyone spread our society could make real progress on these problems too.