I’ve visited Memphis several times in the past few years. Beale Street has lately been spiffed up to be more attractive to tourists, Disneyfied, if you will. Sun Studios and Graceland draw crowds. W.C. Handy’s home on Beale, though not as grand as Elvis’s, is still open to visitors.
On Mulberry Street, less than a mile from Mr. Handy’s home and the $350-a-night Beale Street Westin Hotel, is the National Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered there on April 4, 1968.
The Lorraine was the premier stopping place for black travelers during the time of segregation. Its clientele included musicians passing through Memphis or working at Stax Records. Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding were just a few of the Lorraine’s celebrity guests.
Walter Bailey and his wife Loree, the hotel’s namesake, owned and operated the Lorraine Motel. Loree suffered a stroke hours after King’s killing, and died five days later. Mr. Bailey stopped renting Dr. King’s room 306 and the adjoining 307. He maintained them as a memorial to Dr. King. He converted the other rooms to single room occupancy for low-income residents.
Mr. Bailey struggled with the business and facing foreclosure in 1982, sold the property to the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation. The museum opened in 1991.
When we visited the Civil Rights Museum, we saw across the street a lone woman protesting the museum. We walked over to ask why she, an African-American, was opposed to this tribute to Dr. King’s life and work.
Jacqueline Smith was the last resident of the Lorraine. She had lived there since 1973 and worked there as a housekeeper. When the motel closed in 1988 to begin its makeover to a museum, sheriff’s deputies were called to forcibly evict her. Since then, she has maintained her vigil across Mulberry Street. She maintains that Martin Luther King, Jr. would not want $9 million spent on a building for him and would have opposed evicting the residents. She was quoted in 2010, saying the Lorraine “… should be put to better uses, such as housing, job training, free college, clinic, or other services for the poor…the area surrounding the Lorraine should be rejuvenated and made decent and kept affordable, not gentrified with expensive condominiums that price the people out of their community.”
The museum closed for eighteen months in 2012 for major renovations. The cost was more than three times the original $9 million. Most of the low-income housing has been demolished and replaced with more expensive condominiums and apartments. Ms. Smith is still on Mulberry Street, reminding us that matters of conscience are rarely simple.