28 YEARS, 130 DAYS AND COUNTING

While not by design, it seems appropriate that on the day the world was reeling with the news of Muhammad Ali’s passing I found myself in front of the infamous Lorraine Motel, the site where Ali’s friend and mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in 1968.

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali in Louisville, KY. (AP Photo)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali in Louisville, KY. (AP Photo)

In 1987 work began to convert the Lorraine into the National Civil Rights Museumwhich opened in 1991.  As I arrived party planners were dodging the rain as they made preparations for the black tie, private fundraising gala the museum was hosting that evening.

At 6:01pm on April 4th when James Earl Ray squeezed the trigger of a hunting rifle from the window of a boarding house across the street with Martin Luther King in his sight he forever made the Lorraine Motel synonymous with that event.

 Martin Luther King, Jr. lies at the feet of civil-rights activists pointing in the direction of his assassin. Photo by Joseph Louw.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lies at the feet of civil-rights activists pointing in the direction of his assassin. Photo by Joseph Louw.

 Theatrice Bailey cleans MLK’s blood from the balcony in front of room 307. Photos by Henry Groskinsky

Theatrice Bailey cleans MLK’s blood from the balcony in front of room 307. Photos by Henry Groskinsky

Prior to that the Lorraine Motel had a rich history and served as a hub for African-Americans visiting Memphis.   Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy stayed in room 306 so often it had been nicknamed The King-Abernathy Suite.  In 1945, Walter Bailey bought the Marquette Hotel and renamed it after his wife, Lorraine. The Marquette had been an all-white establishment but under Baileys’ ownership, the Lorraine Motel became a safe haven for black travelers in Memphis. The motel was listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a compilation of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, beauty parlors, barber shops, and other businesses that were friendly to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. Given the motel’s proximity to Beale Street and Stax Records, black songwriters and musicians would stay at the Lorraine while they were recording in Memphis. Countless songs including In the Midnight Hour and Knock on Wood, were written at the motel.  Negro League baseball players, the Harlem Globetrotters, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. and the MGs, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole were among the luminaries the Lorraine hosted.

When the Lorraine still functioned as a motel Jacqueline Smith worked at the front desk and resided there.  Smith was the Lorraine’s last resident and when evicted to make way for the museum she took up residence on Mulberry Street in front of the motel where she presently remains in daily protest.

Smith believes that Memphis, which she sites as the second most segregated city in America, would better serve the teachings of Dr. King if they addressed the problems of the homeless such as hunger, drug addiction and crime rather than displacing people from the few affordable shelters in the area (in 2002 the museum displaced more people with the acquisition the boarding house across the street where it is believed Ray made the fatal shot).

Rather than looking to the future and addressing it’s needs, Smith takes the stance that Memphis prefers to look to the past and is content to capitalize on two dead men, Elvis Presley and MLK.  Smith, an outspoken MLK supporter considers the museum a “tourist trap” that doesn’t honor King’s teachings the way he would have wished.

The irony that Smith is exercising her civil right to protest a Civil Rights Museum was not lost on me.  It occurs to me that her protest over the years has become an exhibit of sorts for the “tourist trap” she disdains.  Her protest is active and displays the very commitment to cause that the museum was built to celebrate.  Perhaps one day, along with Nat TurnerHarriet TubmanJohn BrownEmmett TillFannie Lou HamerRosa Parks, Malcolm X and MLK there will be a display to celebrate the spirit of Jacqueline Smith, whom for years exercised her right to be heard as a voice for the disenfranchised.

Smith’s call for a boycott has gone largely unheeded despite the growing success of the museum in the midst of a $26 million renovation. Smith is unwavering in her commitment to her cause and is comforted by T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the matter: “If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Jacqueline Smith her commitment is admirable and she poses an interesting question, what would the cultural landscape of Memphis be without it’s Kings – Elvis, Martin and B.B.?