StoryBoard Memphis is a place for Memphis to tell its stories. And it’s hard to find a more important Memphis story than that of the event that took place on this date in 1968, forty-nine years ago, at 450 Mulberry Street, on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
“The noise (like a firecracker) sounded as if it came from the courtyard and I looked over the rail… I thought someone was playing games… And then people began to duck, ducked behind cars… The people who were looking up (at the balcony) knew… Somebody screamed, ‘Oh, Lord, they’ve shot Martin.’ … I wheeled around… I didn’t see him hit. I didn’t see it. 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. All this was just pouring out from his chin here to his cheek. He looked like he was trying to say something. His eyes moved.”
The compelling passage above comes from the 1985 book At The River I Stand, by Joan Turner Beifuss, and the Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles’ personal account of the evening of April 4. Rev. Kyles, who passed away last year at age 81, was in Room 306 when the fatal shots rang out.
It is this event that has best symbolized and been a catalyst for Memphis’ historic struggles over the last half-century. An event that Memphis once tried to distance itself from. Judge Preston Battle, presiding over killer James Earl Ray’s sentencing in 1969, felt he had to tell the world that “Memphis has been wrongfully blamed for the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Memphis has now come to honor and embrace the moment, mostly, like a parent comforting a weeping child.
Filmmaker Craig Brewer put it this way: “To the world, we seem like this place that killed Martin Luther King, when really we were a city that needed Martin Luther King. And then he was killed… So we’re a city that has a little bit of a scar on us.” This from Wanda Rushing’s exploration of Memphis’ and its sense of itself, in her intricate book Memphis and the Paradox of Place.
Memphis today is still in perpetual healing from the murder of Dr. King. It can be felt and seen in block after block of formerly black-owned Memphis, south of Beale from 2nd Street to Elmwood Cemetery: empty lots that remain after the years of urban renewal (some prefer to call it “urban removal”) in the late 60s and early 70s, the inevitable decline of the Foote Homes housing projects along Vance, and the ongoing and seemingly unsolvable poverty and crime.
It was a moment that seemed to be the culmination of a hundred plus years of conflicts “between black citizens and white leaders,” said Preston Lauterbach in his powerful book Beale Street Dynasty. And in a particularly dark and fitting irony, the book explains, when the shot rang out and Dr. King collapsed, he “fell about hundred yards from the initial shots that had sparked the (infamous massacre) Memphis Riot of 1866.”
Memphis has certainly come a long way since that evening a generation ago. In the years that followed thousands would congregate annually around the Lorraine Motel, in tribute to all that he stood for. The pilgrimage would eventually galvanize Memphis community leaders into establishing the National Civil Rights Museum that we know today. It would not be without its controversies. But it is hard to argue that what we have at the site today is now one of the most hallowed spots in all of Memphis and the country. A site and a moment we commemorate on this day, April 4.
“Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3, 1968, Mason Temple, 938 Mason St., Memphis, Tennessee.
Visit Memphis’ Burke’s Books to order copies of the books appearing in this article