Arts & Culture

Hampton Sides on Visiting the Lorraine Motel

Dwell on dreams at Room 306

Photo: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

They left the room untouched, just the way it looked on that terrible day. The rumpled bedspread. The old rotary phone. The scattered coffee cups in their saucers. The mod sixties furniture, set against a wall of knotty prefab paneling. The black-and-white TV, rabbit ears tuned to the staticky world. You stand behind the Plexiglas divider, and see the room more or less the way Martin Luther King, Jr., left it when he cinched his tie and headed out the door—and into martyrdom.

The tableau is simple, even mundane, and yet it grabs you: Personal effects transform into relics; period pieces become stand-ins for the souls who last occupied the space. A freeze-frame of the precise moment an era ended.

At a little before six o’clock in the evening, on April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader emerged onto the balcony and stood in front of the now iconic turquoise door, Room 306. Did he realize how vulnerable he was up there? Did he have a premonition of his own death? I may not get there with you, he’d said the night before. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

From a motel corridor, you gaze at the brick rooming house where James Earl Ray brandished a .30-06 rifle from the window of a grungy bathroom. You can see the balcony floor, where King fell with a ragged wound to his neck and jaw. You try to imagine what really happened at that moment, and what larger plots may have been churning in the margins of history.

The Lorraine Motel—home of the National Civil Rights Museum, which has recently undergone a $28 million renovation—is something every Southerner, every American, every human, needs to see. Any place erected on the site of an assassination is liable to skew toward the macabre, but somehow the Lorraine doesn’t. Set among warehouses and railroad depots in downtown Memphis’s South Main Historic Arts District, the Lorraine is a pilgrimage shrine—holy ground with an ineffable power.

For a long time, many of the town fathers lobbied to tear down what had become a ratty, vice-ridden haven for addicts and prostitutes—an embarrassment, they said, and an eyesore. But for a handful of forward-thinking people, the Lorraine would have succumbed to the wrecking ball. Dedicated in 1991, the museum has turned into one of the city’s greatest attractions, with more than 250,000 yearly visitors. “This is everybody’s museum,” the NCRM’s president, Terri Lee Freeman, has said. “What it should do, frankly, is light a fire under us.”

And it does. People come here from around the world to contemplate the power of nonviolent protest. Others come to enact rituals, exorcise demons, and expiate sins. There’s a reason the Lorraine has been visited by the likes of the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. The museum—especially Room 306, the heart and soul of the enterprise—has a haunting potency that must be experienced to be understood.

Just below the balcony, beside a finny vintage Cadillac permanently parked in the lot, a stone marker proclaims: “Behold, here cometh the dreamer…let us slay him…we shall see what will become of his dreams.” And yet it’s here, at the very spot where he fell, that King’s dreams feel most alive.