Over the weekend, our family took a small road trip down to Memphis. The original plan was to drive to Jackson, Tennessee to talk to a home builder, but the allure of Memphis barbecue being just another hour down the road was too much to pass up.
We found our way to Jim Neely’s Interstate Barbecue and gorged ourselves on beef ribs, brisket, bar-b-q spaghetti, beans, potato salad and slaw; all washed down with the sweetest tea in Tennessee. It was hog heaven.
Sitting there all stuffed and happy, I realized that we were only a few miles from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in 1968. The barbecue may have been what drew us into Memphis city limits, but knowing that Monday, today, would be a national holiday honoring the life and memory of King, it seemed to be an unintentionally opportune time to visit this sacred place.
Even more opportune, my two kids, ages 7 and 10, were with us. They had been learning about King the previous week in school, so I was excited that they were able to see this place in person. I want them to understand that considerable sacrifices were made in the name of equality.
We pulled onto Mulberry Street and parked the car. The neon sign of the Lorraine Motel glowed eerily down on us. The building has since been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum, but much of the exterior of the motel remains intact. It now serves as both a memorial and an educational history of the Civil Rights Movement.
It was after dark and the museum was closed, but we could still walk into the parking lot and look up at the balcony to see the door to Room 306. A wreath hung from the balcony railing, marking the spot where he had been shot.
Two cars, a 1959 Dodge and 1968 Cadillac, identical to the ones outside the motel that day, sit parked beneath the balcony as if unaffected by time. The whole scene feels as though you have been transported back; the energy, solemn and raw. Videos of King speaking play at pedestals along the sidewalk, ghostly echoes from four decades ago.
Two men were also visiting the motel; one black, one white. They stood in front of one of the video pedestals beside me, watching as James Bevel, Civil Rights leader and close friend of King, described hearing the shot and seeing King knocked to the floor, blood pouring from a large wound to his face. I could hear the black man choking back tears as his white friend put a comforting hand on his shoulder. It was emotionally gripping, visceral. I felt myself getting choked up as well thinking about the impact this dark event in our history still had on so many people.
To our backs, across the street, the boarding house where the shot had been fired, which is now a part of the museum as well. The door to that part of the museum is made up of words from a speech King gave while there in Memphis:
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
The following day he was shot and killed.
It occurred to me only then, while reading those words, that King knew his fate. After JFK’s assassination just five years earlier, King told his wife Coretta, “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” He knew he was going to be assassinated, but that wasn’t a reason to stop fighting for the cause of equality. He stood openly, brazenly on the balcony that day in April, unafraid of death. He put his own life on the line, a willing sacrifice for “the broader concerns of all humanity.” That is an awe inspiring level of dedication.
This week on Unfound, we’re devoting our Quote of the Day feature to Reverend King. He left behind a treasure trove of profound statements about peace, humanity and progress that play into the multifaceted subject of human experience that we’re exploring here.
Today we honor Martin Luther King, Jr., for his vision and hope for a better future for all of humanity. We honor his dedication and his sacrifice. Our world is a better place because of his time here on earth, but his work is not yet over. There is much to be done. Inequality still exists but we have the hope he left behind, the promise of a better tomorrow.