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Cover image courtesy of the Jim Seelen Motel Images Collection.

Black and white close up photo of Martin Luther King leaning over a podium.
The day before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Some say the speech was prophetic and King knew he would die soon. Image: Martin Luther King, Jr. photographed by Marion S. Trikosko, 1964. LC-DIG-ppmsc-01269, Library of Congress, Public Domain.

On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leaned over the balcony outside of room 306 on the second story of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He yelled down to bandleader Ben Branch who was scheduled to perform at a rally that both men would be attending that night.

“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”

Just then, a shot rang out from the second story bathroom window of the rooming house across the street from the Lorraine.

Struck in the face by the bullet, King fell unconscious onto the deck. Hearing the shot inside the room, King’s roommate, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, came running out of room 306 to find King lying prone on the balcony, bleeding profusely from where the bullet had done its dirty work. Checking to see if King still had a pulse, Andrew Young found that King was still alive.

He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where doctors tried to save his life for over an hour. Despite their efforts, however, they pronounced the beloved civil rights leader dead at 7:05 p.m.

The Lorraine Motel

Though the tragic events that happened at the Lorraine Motel are dark threads forever woven into the fabric of American memory, the property at 450 Mulberry Street had quite an interesting and lively history of its own before that fateful day.

The Lorraine started out as the 16-room Windsorlorinne Hotel around 1925 before changing its name to the Marquette Hotel shortly after. In 1945, it was bought by Walter Bailey who once again changed its name to the Lorraine Motel, a sort of portmanteau of his wife’s name, Loree, and the popular jazz standard “Sweet Lorraine”.

Bailey did more than just change the name, however. Over time, he added a second floor, about 30 more rooms, a swimming pool, and a cafe as the motel took on a more mid-century modern “Googie” style of architecture about it.

Wide-view picture of the exterior of the Lorraine Motel with a wreath marking a spot on the second floor where Martin Luther King was killed.
Exterior of the Lorraine Motel. A wreath on the second floor balcony marks the spot where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Image: Americasroof , CC BY-SA3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s more, as an African-American living in a time when Memphis was segregated, Bailey catered mostly to Black motorists. In fact, the Lorraine Motel was even listed in the “Negro Motorist’s Green Book” or “Green Guide”.

Throughout the 1940s, 1950’s and 1960’s, the Lorraine Motel became the choice stop for black celebrities traveling to Memphis. At any given time you might see entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke or Aretha Franklin at the Lorraine. (Legend has it that both Wilson Pickett’s “The Midnight Hour” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” were composed at the motel.)

Black sports legends like Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson also stayed at the Lorraine when they were in town.

And of course, Civil Rights Leaders like Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy also stayed at the Lorraine Motel – and always in room 306 – whenever they came to Memphis. In fact, they visited so often that Bailey dubbed room 306 the “King -Abernathy Suite”.

Lest We Forget

Picture of the entrance to the National Civil Rights Museum complex.
Entrance to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Image: Bjoertvedt, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Five days after Dr. King was killed, Loree, would suffer a stroke and die.

After being on the run for two months, King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, was arrested on Saturday, June 8, 1968, at London Heathrow Airport. He was immediately extradited and sent back to Tennessee where he was charged with King’s assassination.  On March 10, 1969, he confessed to the crime, only to retract his confession three days later for fear of being sentenced to the electric chair. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Despite numerous unsuccessful attempts to recant his confession and have a jury trial, Ray would die in prison on April 23, 1998 at the age of 70 from liver and kidney failure caused by Hepatitis-C.

Walter Bailey would continue to own the Lorraine Motel until he sold it in March 1988. He would die at the age of 73 in July of that same year.

The Lorraine Motel lives on today – not as a motel, mind you, but as part of the complex of museums and historic buildings in Memphis that make up the National Civil Rights Museum. Here, from the beginning of slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction to the 20th Century Civil Rights movement there are over 260 artifacts, 40 films, various interactive media, and much more that takes you through this critical part of America’s history.

And if you happen to be in or around Memphis today, January 16, for Martin Luther King Day 2023, stop by the All-Day Celebration which includes free admission to the museum from 8:00am to 6:00pm. Live entertainment, children’s activities, and more are part of this community celebration and education in honor of Dr. King’s birthday.

For tickets and hours, visit the National Civil Rights Museum’s website here.

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