Balcony. Room 306. The Lorraine Motel. The infamous spot where civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took his last breath before being shot down. What was once a small, yet, upscale motel which catered to the needs of black clientele, both famous and non, has now been preserved and converted into the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The museum holds exhibits with a wide variety of stories starting with the middle passage and walking through history: slavery, the civil war, emancipation, voting rights, the civil rights movement, on, and on, and on, concluding with current struggles and the continued fight for true freedom. The main attraction for me was that balcony. That room. 306. Where Dr. King was assassinated.
It is almost haunting to encounter this scene which wisks you back in time. A time that’s familiar only because of the pictures and videos and stories that remain. Those pictures and videos of that famous sign and that famous balcony, always in black and white, greet you live and in bright color. The motel, the cars in front of it, and Dr. King’s room have all be reconstructed perfectly. Also reconstructed and preserved is the room across the street where the crime was committed. There’s a strange sort of quiet that accompanies you as you look out the window that was Dr. King’s, across the parking lot to a boarding house where someone was waiting to make that day, April 4, 1968, his last day of life. The sound of his recorded speeches mixed with the husky voice of Mahalia Jackson’s “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” fill the corridor. There are other sounds as well. Young visitors quietly discuss what that day must have been like. Older patrons, some boisterous, others in solemn tones, remember what it felt like to hear that their leader had been killed. All the while, you are silent, staring out that window and thinking of all the recent portrayals of the man in film and on stage. You wonder what would have happened if he’d decided to stay inside the room or visit the balcony a little earlier or later on that day.
Across the lot, in what was a boarding house, the room that had been rented to the killer has been reconstructed and preserved. This portion of the museum focuses more on the investigation of Dr. King’s death. There are pictures and testimonials of the men who were present on that day. More videos play; his interviews, the crowds that had gathered to see and hear him speak on various occasions, the piercing sound of one gunshot, and the devastating reactions of people being told that the man who had taken up their charge was no more.
Throughout the museum, there are life sized portrayals of buses being burned, people walking during the bus boycotts, Rosa Parks sitting alone on a bus while an angry white bus driver tells her that she must move, re-enactments of lunch counter sit-ins, a reconstruction of the Pettus Bridge, and the like. I spent two hours walking through and listening and reading and the one thing that struck me was the sheer amount of struggle that was being represented in pictures and videos and recordings. I wonder how a people, ripped from their homeland, stripped of language, and culture, and name, and identity, and basic human rights are able to continuously rise with the strength and will and determination to fight for what their soul tells them they should have.
I think of Mike Brown. I think of Tamir Rice. I think of Eric Garner. I think of Sean Bell. I think of all the people who are still marching in the streets holding signs that say “I Am A Man”. I think of all the mothers who fear for the lives of their sons. I think of all the people who are so fed up and angry with the threads of injustice which make the fabric of our nation. I think of all those whose fear keeps them firmly planted in the ignorance of their forefathers. And I am thankful to be able to stand at the window of room 306 looking out on that balcony. The view may be slightly different from Dr. King’s, but I know that what he saw was not what was there. No, indeed. His gaze was fixed on what he hoped and dreamed and prayed would one day be there. There is no way he could continue his work and fight that fight if his gaze out that window had been limited to the view immediately in front of his face. There is no way any of us can continue if our gaze is limited to the view immediately in front of our faces. Our collective gaze must be progressive. It must be full of hope and prayers and wishes and dreams. That is the only way to make his dream a reality.
Thank you Dr. King.