Half a century after King’s assassination, what progress has been made on the march toward justice?
The Lorraine motel has more ghosts than most. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding walked its corridors, slept in its rooms or lay by its pool. Wilson Pickett’s The Midnight Hour and Eddie Floyd’s Knock on Wood were composed here. This, after all, is Memphis, home of Elvis Presley and a strain of soul music known as the Memphis Sound.
But the motel also represents a psychic scar for the city, the south and America. It was here that, amid seething racial tensions half a century ago, Martin Luther King was gunned down by a white drifter. It is a scar that modern Memphis – a majority black city with places of pilgrimage for music lovers such as Graceland, Beale Street, Sun Studio and the Stax Museum – is still struggling to heal.
“When we think about the sound that came out of the city during that time, you can’t help but feel that grief in the sound,” says Zandria Robinson, assistant professor of sociology at Rhodes College in Memphis. “Even if it’s joyous, even if it’s nothing to do with race at all, there’s a bit of grief there in the sound because you associate with that time, with that moment and with those issues.”
The sound will turn to momentary silence at 6.01pm on 4 April to mark exactly 50 years since King’s sonorous voice was stilled by the assassin’s bullet. A wreath-laying ceremony, to which past presidents are invited but Donald Trump is not, will be held on the motel balcony where King died during three days of commemorations under the rubric “Where do we go from here?”, after the title of his final book.
It is a pointed question in this majority black city in the “Bible belt” state of Tennessee. While the days when the zoo was open to whites six days a week and African Americans one (cage cleaning day) are long gone, the insidious apartheid of economic, educational and geographical segregation persists. A growing black middle class was knocked back by the financial crisis and gentrification has been slow to reach historic black neighbourhoods. Two Confederate statues, a few minutes’ drive from the Lorraine, were torn down only three months ago after fierce opposition from white supremacists.
Robinson adds: “People in Memphis tend to wear their race on their sleeve. It’s a very powerful, bold feeling: you’re very aware of what your race is because of this legacy of King’s assassination and the shadow in which we all live. I do find myself sometimes in a restaurant with my kid or partner, being the only black people in there, and I just wonder, how the hell did this happen? How did this happen in our city with 600,000 people, about 400,000 of them African American?”
Part of the answer lies in the political convulsions of 1968, when the mood in Memphis was febrile as garbage workers went on strike over pay and safety conditions. On 28 March, King – subject to FBI surveillance, waning popularity and death threats – led a march of more than 6,000 people, including workers who carried signs that declared “I am a man”, defying white people’s habit of calling African American workers “boys”. But violence flared on Beale Street, the neon-lit heart of Memphis music, and police fired teargas.
Cleo Smith, now 75 and wearing an “I am a man” badge ahead of the anniversary, recalls: “We were sprayed with water hose, Mace, hit with bully sticks. There was this one policeman that had this police dog he released in front of me and I hit the dog in the nose with my fist ’cause I thought he was fixing to bite. The policeman snapped his holster and said, ‘Hit him again.’ Naturally I wasn’t going to hit him the second time because I knew he was getting ready to shoot me.
“So I broke away from the crowd and went home to my mother’s house, and when I walked in the door my mother, seeing the expression on my face, the fear, she says to me: ‘Son, you look like you just seen a ghost.’ And I wanted to tell my mom I almost became a ghost, but I didn’t tell her because she had asked me to stay away from the marches but I couldn’t stay away because I was a city employee.”
King was dismayed and vowed to return. On 3 April, at Mason Temple in Memphis, the civil rights leader delivered what would be his last speech, including the words “I’ve been to the mountaintop” and a prophetic reflection on his own mortality. But when he retired to the modest Lorraine his mood turned jovial. On 4 April there were laughs with his brother, AD King, and a pillow fight with activist Andrew Young. At about 6pm, King stepped out on to the balcony and leaned over the railing. He asked saxophonist Ben Branch to play his favourite hymn, Precious Lord, at a mass meeting that evening. “Play it real pretty,” King said.
Then, a bullet streaked across Mulberry Street and struck King in the neck. He collapsed in an instant, a leader of peaceful resistance dispatched by savage violence. The Rev Billy Kyles, a Memphis minister who died in 2016, later recalled: “He had fallen on his back when I got to him. He had a crushed cigarette in his hand. The knot in his tie was blown off, and I looked at this tremendous wound. He looked like he was trying to say something. His eyes moved.”
The city was shaken to its core. Smith was at home in bed, exhausted after another march. “My wife came in and woke me and said that Dr King just got shot and I jumped up out of the bed, stood up, and the first thing that popped into my mind was: all hope is gone.”
Smith, who earned $1.15 an hour back then and could not read or write until his mid to late 20s, is still working as a crew chief and fighting for workers’ rights. “Dr King taught me how to behave myself wisely because, before he came to Memphis, I was a street thug. I would fight at the drop of a hat. But he taught me how to behave like a man, act like a man and stick my shoulder up and be a man.”
Another veteran of the march is the Rev James Netters, who was beaten by police and temporarily blinded by teargas. On the day King died, he was at a city council meeting negotiating on behalf of the garbage workers. Now 90, he recalls: “One of the council person’s wives called after we had finished putting the resolution together and said, ‘Turn the TV on, Martin has just been shot.’ My first remark is, ‘They killed my man.’
“They got me calmed down for a minute and said, ‘Wait till he gets to the hospital. He may be all right.’ I said, ‘That man is dead. They killed him. They killed my man.’ Martin was my idol, my mentor. I was at the march on Washington in 1963 and that speech [I Have a Dream] was so powerful and so enthralling that it just changed my whole life. So that’s how serious it was for me to have the man who had meant so much to me to be killed in that very moment.”
Riots broke out in more than a hundred cities and many black neighbourhoods burned. The gunman, James Earl Ray, an escaped convict who had spoken of his loathing of African Americans, was arrested two months later at London’s Heathrow airport. He confessed and was sentenced to life in prison; he later recanted and claimed he had been set up. Ray died behind bars in 1998.
Today the exterior of the Lorraine motel – listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, or “Green Guide”, of establishments safe for African American travellers during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation – is preserved as it was: the rows of numbered doors, a sign with turquoise frame, yellow oval and white circles, even vintage cars in the car park. Room 306 recreates the quotidian details of King’s last hours: undrunk coffee, cigarettes in an ashtray, bed clothes turned back, a newspaper of the day. But the rest of the building now houses the National Civil Rights Museum, including a bus like the one on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and a reconstruction of King’s jail cell in Birmingham.
It is a museum, monument and, in some ways, millstone around the city’s neck. Robinson says: “As wonderful as the National Civil Rights Museum has been, it is a thing that is constantly revisited upon children. The first thing you learn when you go to this museum is that it is on the site of the murder of this person you are taught to idolise, but you are also implicitly being taught: don’t do that because that’s what happens to you. So there’s some shame there in this as well around both not speaking out but also the idea that, if you do speak out, you may be in danger.”
The museum’s president, Terri Freeman, had a “visceral” reaction on her first visit. She recalls: “When I arrived here it was noticeable that the city was very scarred by what happened in ’68 and in many ways I felt that people were still living up on the balcony. It was a heavy burden: the city carried around this assassination. As opposed to bringing people together, it kind of solidified some divisions because you had a lot of white flight.
“Downtown pretty much closed up, but a lot of development has occurred in the three years that I have been here,” she continued. “I think this 50th anniversary is helping actually for people to say, ‘OK, maybe we can let this go and really move forward.’ But you can’t just say we’re going to move forward without doing the work that it’s going to take.”
After the initial gains of the civil rights movement in voting rights, school integration and employment in America, progress has stalled and in some cases gone into reverse for complex, interlocking reasons. Barack Obama, the first black president, was succeeded by Trump, who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Freeman admits: “All of us are culpable in this. Some of us got complacent over the years and kind of took for granted those gains that had occurred and then we looked up and said, ‘Oh-oh!’”
A report produced by the museum and University of Memphis illustrates local frustrations. Among its findings is that the childhood poverty rate for African American children in Shelby county, which contains Memphis, is more than four times greater than that for whites. Median income for African Americans has remained at roughly half that of whites for the past half century. The incarceration rate for African Americans has increased 50% since 1980, while the rate for whites has fallen slightly.
Tami Sawyer, director of diversity with Teach For America Memphis, says: “Memphis today is pretty much the same as when Martin Luther King died here. Of course there’s some integration and opportunity, but 50% of black kids live in poverty and schools are being resegregated. If King woke up here today, he’d probably say: ‘Is this the city I left?’ There hasn’t been a lot of change 50 years later.”
The assassination “absolutely still casts a shadow”, she adds. “It’s a large part of our identity. We are constantly referred to as the city where Dr King died. Memphis died with Dr King, in a way.”
Sawyer, 35, led a campaign to remove statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the civil war, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and early member of the Klan, which was born in Tennessee. She witnessed them fall last December. “It was bittersweet,” she recalls. “I was overwhelmed, I was excited, I was in disbelief until they brought the statues off the base. I was elated. I thought heavily about the ancestors I’ll never know because they died in slavery.”
But Sawyer received so much abuse that Facebook assigned her a specialist programmer to help deal with it. “Being black and being a woman made me more of a target,” she says. “It tells me we are still in a state in our country where racism lives. For a while it hid under the radar and now it’s back in the news and in our faces every day. We never solved racism. We never got equity. We have a lot more work to do. We are a racist country.”
The election of Trump, and its emboldening of white supremacists, has sharpened questions around resistance and the need for a new generation of leaders. Had King lived, he would now be 89. What would he make of America today?
Memphis native Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound On His Trail, about the assassination, says: “I’m not one of those people who believes King accomplished more in martyrdom than he would have accomplished had he lived on. No doubt the current state of America would cause him grave concern, but we could desperately use him right now. Think what a contribution he would make to the debates that are raging for the soul of our country – guns, immigration, police brutality, the war on truth. We sorely need his civility, his moderation, his message of non-violence and loving one’s enemies. He would have a lot to say.”
Movements such as Black Lives Matter eschew hierarchy; online movements thrive without figureheads. Freeman is fine with that. “I think we run a risk of setting ourselves up for failure if we think that there’s going to be another King,” she says. “There will never be another Martin Luther King.
“I honestly believe that, if King were alive today, he would be incredibly supportive of all the young people who are making their voices heard and using the tool of civil disobedience to begin to enact and create a movement for change because that’s what he did when he was alive. Yes, he was the figurehead, but there were thousands of people behind King that were moving and doing the work. We’re learning from our ancestors and our elders that we have to be persistent. We have to be in this for the long haul. We have to be tenacious. We have to be courageous. And so I think in that way that would make King very happy.”
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