Day 2 of our Aluminum Under the Rainbow rally greeted us with a mechanical failure: our water heater wouldn’t work. An investigation indicated an obstruction in the flue, about which we had no clue. We joined the group for breakfast and began
pestering people asking for advice. As it turns out, one member of our group was an RV repairman. We kidnapped prevailed upon him to help us out and, after about an hour, he was able to clear the obstruction and get the water heater back up and running.
The funniest moment came when he asked if we had a wire hanger. Jon said, “Wire hanger? We’re gay. We only have wood hangers.”
Fortunately, another Airstreamer showed up with a coil of wire that served his purpose.
After enjoying a hot shower, we readied ourselves for a trip into Memphis and a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, a complex of museums and historic buildings with exhibits that trace the Civil Rights Movement from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 to the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Arriving at the site of the Lorraine Motel, we were reminded of other places we’ve visited where the course of human history was forever changed: Ford’s Theater, Little Big Horn, Dealy Plaza. It’s hard to believe that a man of Martin Luther King’s standing had to take a small room at the Lorraine Motel when he clearly could have had the best accommodations in the city. But even as late as 1968, a Nobel laureate who had easy access to the U.S. president and enjoyed international renown was restricted—because he was black.
You see, in the segregated south, most hotels were white-only. African-American proprietors Walter and Loree Bailey welcomed black travelers to the Lorraine Motel. Close to Beale Street and known for home-style cooking, it attracted mostly black and white musicians. It was actually considered an upscale operation, because it had a swimming pool and drive-up access. Among the guests who stayed there in the 1960s were Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.
Dr. King arrived at the Lorraine in April 1968 to lead a march supporting the city’s sanitation workers. He and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference stayed in adjoining rooms, 306 and 307. As he stepped out of his room to join his colleagues for dinner, King was assassinated.
Investigators agree that the bullet that killed him was fired from the boarding house next to the Young and Morrow Building. Today, the two buildings hold the Legacy exhibits of the museum, which track the manhunt for the assassin to the moment of his arrest, and highlights the investigations into the killings.
There’s no question that King was a man under the microscope. Memphis police had surveilled him from the moment he arrived in the city, watching his movements from Firehouse No. 2, which is still an active station today. The motel, the boarding house, the firehouse and the surrounding landscape look much the same as they did on April 4, 1968. Visiting these places is like stepping back in time.
The museum itself, with its multimedia and interactive exhibits, is powerful, visceral and evocative. We had no idea what to expect and we were completely overwhelmed. Three hours were definitely not enough to take in the immersive experience. Among its many exhibits, the museum features a replica sanitation truck, a replica of the bus Rosa Parks rode in Montgomery, Alabama, before initiating the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, and a replica of the U.S. Supreme Court room where oral arguments were heard in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
The room where Dr. King spent his last hours is now a shrine. Visitors were thoughtful, quiet, reverent.
It’s hard to imagine that he was murdered at the age of 39—younger than John F. Kennedy, the president who was assassinated five years before him, and Robert F. Kennedy, the presidential candidate who was assassinated two months after him. Such terrible, turbulent years. Such wasted youth.
We left in time to purchase a new pair of sandals and pick up a gift card for our water heater repairman. The group’s potluck dinner theme was “Elvis’ Favorite Food,” so we brought King Ranch Chicken. We don’t know if Elvis ever tried or even liked King Ranch Chicken, but it seemed like the right thing for a couple of Texans to bring to the table. We didn’t win.
But we did win a weather radio in the big raffle!