Assassinations, Pop Culture

The Lorraine Motel. Prelude and Aftermath. Part II.

Civil rights ldr. Andrew Young (L) and others stanOriginal publish date:  April 7, 2017

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was staying in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Dr. King traveled to the river city in support of striking African American city sanitation workers. King had gone out onto the balcony and was standing near his room when he was struck at 6:01 p.m., by a single .30-06 bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle. The bullet entered King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord, severing his jugular vein and major arteries in the process, before lodging in his shoulder. The force of the shot ripped off King’s necktie. King fell violently backward onto the balcony, unconscious as his life ebbed away. Despite his faint pulse, he died shortly afterwards at Saint Joseph hospital. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. In an instant, the Lorraine became one of the most famous motels in the United States, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Lorraine Motel was owned by Walter Bailey who renamed it to honor his wife Loree. For over two decades the motel, located at 450 Mulberry Street on the south edge of downtown Memphis, was THE place to stay for visiting minority musicians, athletes, clergymen and travelers passing through the segregated Jim Crow South. Walter and Loree Bailey were hands on owners who did everything from taking reservations to cooking dinners in the attached restaurant. When that rifle shot rang out, Loree Bailey suffered a stroke on the spot. Loree was at her post as the motel’s switchboard operator when she suffered her heart attack. When Rev. Samuel Kyles attempted to call an ambulance using the phone in the motel room, nobody was at the switchboard to direct the call. Loree Bailey died five days later on April 9th, the same day as Dr. King’s funeral. The official cause of her death was listed as a brain hemorrhage.
Walter Bailey continued to run the motel, but he never rented Room 306 and the adjoining room 307 again. He turned them into a memorial to Dr. King. The room was preserved exactly as it looked on that tragic night. There are two beds: one was King’s and the other was occupied by Dr. Ralph Abernathy. King’s bed was not fully made because he was not feeling well and had been lying down. Dishes were left in the room from the kitchen where Loree Bailey prepared food (fried Mississippi River catfish) for the motel room’s guests. In time, Bailey converted the other motel rooms to single room occupancy for low-income residential use.
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After King’s murder, the Lorraine Motel began a long and steep decline. Despite Bailey’s efforts to preserve it as a working historical landmark, people no longer wanted to stay there. Walter Bailey continued to run the motel as a shadow of its former self. Bailey stood by helplessly as his once high-end establishment became a brothel and haven for drug dealers. He declared bankruptcy in 1982 and closed the motel. It was scheduled to be sold at auction but a “Save the Lorraine” group, part of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, bought it at the last minute for $144,000 in December 1982 with the intent to turn it into a museum. Walter Bailey died on July 7, 1988 at the age of 73 and did not live to see his motel turned into a museum.
The Lorraine’s last tenant was Jacqueline Smith, a live-in housekeeper and front desk clerk at the motel since 1973. When told the Lorraine had been sold, she barricaded herself in her room and refused to leave. She was forcibly removed by law enforcement officers just 4 months before Walter Bailey died. Ms. Smith was lifted, lawn chair and all, and gently placed on the sidewalk across the street from the motel. Construction workers then moved her belongings into the street. With that, The Lorraine Motel officially closed for good on March 2, 1988.
In 1991 the National Civil Rights Museum opened to the public and Walter and Loree Bailey’s dream was finally realized. The Lorraine is now filled with artifacts, films, oral histories, and interactive media, all designed to guide visitors through five centuries of black history.
Despite being dragged from her room, Jacqueline Smith never really left the property. She set up camp on a street corner opposite the Lorraine, where she has waged a one-woman campaign protesting the institution’s existence for nearly 30 years. There she stays, 21 hours a day, calling for a boycott of the Civil Rights Museum. She leaves only to find food and go to the bathroom, all her worldly possessions stored under a blue tarp nearby.
jacqueline-smithJacqueline believed the Lorraine should be used for helping the poor and needy, rather than a celebration of Dr. King’s death. She told visitors that “Memphis has always been a city where the two biggest attractions are memorials to two dead men: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elvis Presley.” Near Smith’s perch was a sign that read, “Stop worshiping the dead.” Smith argued that Dr. King’s legacy would have been better honored by converting the motel into low-income housing or a facility for the poor. “It’s a tourist trap, first and foremost… this sacred ground is being exploited.” Smith said of the museum that she never set foot in, despite invitations from the museum staff to do so. Smith’s call for a boycott has gone largely unheeded and she maintains her vigil outside the Loraine to this day.
Although the inside, except for room 306, has changed drastically, the Lorraine Motel exterior remains instantly recognizable; forever frozen in the spring of 1968. Two classic cars-a white 1959 Dodge Royal with lime green tail fins and a white 1968 Cadillac-are parked in front of the motel under that fateful balcony. The Lorraine motel sign still maintains silent witness. A large wreath hangs on the balcony outside Room 306, to mark the spot that changed the world. Flashes of those iconic photographs of King’s associates desperately pointing off into the distance at an assassin who is no longer there dominate the visitor’s mind. The eyes trace an imagined path to the window a football field away from which the death shot was fired. The scene is indelibly burned into America’s collective memory.
Room 306 remains faultlessly preserved. The unmade twin beds, half-filled ashtrays, black rotary phone, television with rabbit-ears antenna can all be viewed through a Plexiglass window. The meticulous attention to detail, which I was fortunate enough to witness myself when I visited with my wife and children on the 33rd anniversary of the sad event in 1991, is due and owing to one man who became an unexpected documentarian of an American tragedy.
Within hours of the assassination, Life magazine photographer Henry Groskinsky was on that balcony and through the door of King’s room. Although the physical body of Martin Luther King Jr. was gone, ethereal traces of the man remained. Groskinsky captured them all: a wrinkled shirt, a Soul Force magazine, a Styrofoam cup half full of coffee; a sign that King had momentarily left the room and would return soon. King’s still unpacked suitcase with a can of shaving cream, pajamas, brush and his book, “Strength to Love.” lay undisturbed.
The TV was still on when Groskinsky arrived, King’s face now occupying every newscast and eerily appearing in the background of many of his photographs. That wall upon which the TV had been mounted is now gone and has been replaced with a sheet of clear plastic through which millions of children have pressed their faces against straining to see this holy spot. Curious eyes dart back-and-forth at the relics in the room: the rumpled coverlet on King’s double bed folded back; a can of pomade on the vanity; a Gideon Bible on the nightstand; a newspaper with the headline “Racial Peace Sought by Two Negro Pastors”; and just outside the window, the balcony where King collapsed, a square of its original concrete flooring preserved denoting where the great man’s life trickled away.
It was the photo of the briefcase that resonated with me as an image of the suddenness of it all. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a myth, a legend, a saint to most Americans. But the photo of his everyday possessions stands as testament to the fact that he was also a husband, a father and a man. However, the images captured by Groskinsky which haunt my dreams to this day are those of the aftermath of the assassination in its barest form.
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One need only visit the web and Google Henry Groskinsky’s name and a quick search will reveal two more photos from the fateful night. They are graphic and shocking in nature, so be warned. Both captioned “Clean Up”, one pictures Walter Bailey’s brother Theatrice as he scoops up King’s blood from the ground and places it into a jar. The other is less graphic but equally poignant and pictures Theatrice as he attempted to clean up Dr. King’s blood from the balcony with a broom. If these photos of the aftermath at the Lorraine Motel didn’t exist, the scene could not be believed.

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Assassinations, Pop Culture

The Lorraine Motel. Prelude and Aftermath. Part I.

Lorraine Motel Part IOriginal publish date:  March 31, 2017

History just happens. Often, history is well planned, scheduled and expected. The history I have always found most appealing is that which was unplanned, unscheduled and unexpected. Examples: Gettysburg, Woodstock, and Robert F. Kennedy’s April 4, 1968 speech in Indianapolis. True, the soldiers were gonna fight, the bands were gonna rock and RFK was gonna give a speech, but history happened far beyond the participants’ wildest imaginations. The prologue and aftermath, those always intrigued me the most.
For example, the Loraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Historians recognize the name as the site of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. But what about the Lorraine Motel before and after that tragic night? The Lorraine Motel, located at 450 Mulberry Street, in downtown Memphis, first opened its doors in 1925. The 16-room one-story all-white establishment was first known as the Windsor Hotel and stood just six blocks east of the Mississippi River. When the hotel first opened, Memphis was fast becoming a music hotspot with Beale Street as a mecca for Delta blues fans. Machine Gun Kelly roamed the streets, Cotton was king and Democratic Party Boss Crump ran the city like a well oiled machine.
The Windsor served businessmen, musicians and tourists until the closing days of World War II when it underwent a name change to the Marquette Hotel. In 1945, the hotel was purchased by minority businessman Walter Bailey, who renamed the hotel “Lorraine” to honor his wife Loree and his favorite song “Sweet Lorraine” by Nat King Cole. During the segregation era, Bailey re-branded the hotel as upscale lodging that catering to black clientele. At the time of purchase the Lorraine included 16 rooms, a café, and living quarters for the Baileys.
The Baileys added a second floor with 12 rooms, a swimming pool, and drive-up access for more rooms on the south side of the complex. The Baileys added even more guest rooms and drive-up access, transforming it from a hotel into a motel. Under the Baileys’ ownership, the Lorraine Motel became a safe haven for black travelers in the Jim Crow South. The motel was listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” also known as the Green Guide, a compilation of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, beauty parlors, barber shops, and other businesses that were friendly to African-Americans during the segregation era.
As lackluster as those old guest registers from the Windsor must have been in the hotel’s first two decades, Bailey’s Lorraine became star studded and the registers must have read like a who’s who of black celebrities. With the 1957 opening of Stax Records, less than 3 miles away, the Lorraine became the preferred home away from home for some of the biggest names in the music business: Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Waters, Otis Redding, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, the Staple Singers and Wilson Pickett to name just a few. The Lorraine was even visited by the Bailey’s favorite singer Nat King Cole on several occasions.
The motel’s proximity to Beale Street attracted black songwriters and session musicians would stay at the Lorraine while they were recording in Memphis. Negro League baseball teams, in town to play the Memphis Red Sox, and the Harlem Globetrotters also spent time at the motel. Although officially categorized as a segregated hotel, the Baileys welcomed both black and white guests. The Lorraine became equally famous its home-cooked meals, Memphis barbecue, and upscale environment at affordable rates (under $13 a night).
Stax recording artist Isaac Hayes, best remembered by baby boomers for his classic theme from “Shaft”, former owner of the old ABA Memphis Tams and as his character “Chef” from South Park, was a frequent guest of the Lorraine Motel back in the day. He once said this of the historic motel, “We’d go down to the Lorraine Motel and we’d lay by the pool and Mr. Bailey would bring us fried chicken and we’d eat ice cream. . . . We’d just frolic until the sun goes down and [then] we’d go back to work.” Two famous songs, Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” were written at the motel.
Steve Cropper, a white Stax record guitarist with Booker T & the MG’s, co-wrote both songs with the artists while staying at the Loraine. He has stated in interviews that there was a lightning storm the night that he and Eddie wrote the song, hence the lyrics ‘It’s like thunder and lightning, The way you love me is frightening’. When Sam & Dave shout “Play It Steve” in their hit song “Soul Man”, they’re talking about Cropper. Other prominent guests included Brooklyn Dodgers stars Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella.
However, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the Lorraine Motel’s most famous guest. It was Dr. King’s preferred residence while visiting the city. Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy had stayed together at the Lorraine several times, sharing Room 306 so often that they jokingly called it “the King-Abernathy suite” when phoning in reservations. His last visit was in the spring of 1968, when he came to Memphis to support 1,300 striking sanitation workers. Their grievances included unfair working conditions: when it rained, black workers were sent home without pay while paid white supervisors remained on the job, black workers were given only one uniform and no place in which to change clothes, and poor pay capped at a fraction of the pay for white workers doing the same jobs. Following a bloody confrontation between marching strikers and police, a court injunction had been issued banning further protests. King hoped to lead a peaceful protest march aimed at overturning the court injunction.
921552_1280x720Dr. King had stayed at the Lorraine on March 18, when he spoke to an enormous crowd at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in support of the striking sanitation workers. The venue was perhaps the largest meeting space for African Americans in the South and a good fit for King’s Poor People’s Campaign. As King called for a general work the crowd (estimated at 12-14,000 people) erupted in cheers and foot-stomping.
King returned to Memphis a week later to lead a protest march on City Hall. That day turned out to be one of the worst in King’s career. The marchers paraded down Beale Street with Dr. King was at the head of the column. When they turned onto Main Street, they were greeted by police in riot gear blocking their way. Dr. King reluctantly turned around. Then, police attacked with tear gas and billy clubs. One marcher was shot to death. Dozens of protesters were injured and nearly 300 arrested. Stores were looted and burned. The whole sad affair was captured on film and broadcast on television. Soon, Memphis became an armed camp and martial law was the rule of the day.
Dr. King quickly planned a return visit six days later to blot this stain off the civil rights landscape. That morning, King’s plane from Atlanta was delayed by a bomb threat; no explosive was found. King spent the better part of the day, April 3, meeting with aides and local organizers at the Lorraine Motel. He was exhausted and feeling ill. A heavy storm rumbled in and raged on and off all day long. That evening, Mason Temple had scheduled Rev. Abernathy as the evening speaker, but when the 3,000 person crowd demanded to hear King, Abernathy phoned King at his room in the Lorraine and asked him to address the assembly.
Dr. King arrived as the storm rattled windows and rain beat down on the metal roof of the Temple. Dr. King stepped to the podium and delivered his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech that night. It would be the last speech of his life. He closed with the eerily prophetic lines, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.But I’m not concerned about that now… I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you… And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
questi7King spent April 4, 1968, the last day of his life, at the Lorraine Motel. He shared a plate of fried Mississippi River catfish with Rev. Abernathy for his final meal. Afterwards, Dr. King participated in a playful pillow fight with Abernathy and aide Andrew Young. Just after 6 p.m., Dr. King stepped out of Room 306 and conversed with Jesse Jackson in the parking lot below. He leaned over the metal railing and asked the saxophonist Ben Branch to play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” , one of King’s personal favorites, at the rally that evening. As King wondered aloud whether he needed a topcoat and turned back towards his room, a sharp sound rang out. Some thought it was a firecracker, or a car backfiring. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in the face. He died shortly afterwards at a hospital.
The world, and the Lorraine Motel, would never be the same.