MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shortly after noon, as Sunday services at Memphis’ abundant churches conclude, another gathering of the faithful is getting underway at a restaurant popular for its soul food.
“Hi, welcome to The Four Way,” owner Patrice Thompson greets every customer, often in quick succession.
Many dressed in their Sunday best, the diners are a diverse crowd — a far cry from decades past, when the folks here were nearly all African-American.
The walls of the 72-year-old restaurant are covered with photos of the celebrities who’ve eaten here: Singers such as Aretha Franklin and Isaac Hayes, who would drop by after recording sessions at nearby Stax Records, and some of the biggest names in the civil rights movement: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and, most notably, Martin Luther King Jr.
“He’d come in every time he was in town,” Thompson said, though she’s too young to have ever met the famous preacher.
Just like The Four Way was a regular stop for King, so, too, was the Lorraine Motel, where he would stay during visits to Memphis. He last checked in on April 3, 1968. The next night, King, was dead at age 39, felled by an assassin’s bullet as he stood on a balcony outside his second-floor room.
The Lorraine — and some might say the nation — would never be the same. Within hours of King’s murder, Loree Bailey, who owned the motel with her husband, suffered a stroke. She died five days later. Even as the motel fell into disrepair, the building remained a shrine to the slain leader — the beginning of the movement that, eventually, would allow visitors to walk in King’s footsteps.
Half a century later, commemorations of King’s profound impact on America are underway. The National Civil Rights Museum, which incorporates the old motel, is leading the charge.
“It is clear that the museum was born out of the tragedy of his assassination,” noted Faith Morris, a museum executive. “This is probably the most comprehensive storytelling of the American civil rights movement.”
That story begins with the arrival of the first slaves in America in 1619. Exhibits discuss the Civil War and Reconstruction before visitors arrive in the ugly years of the mid-20th century: the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Riders and the sanitation workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis.
As newspaper headlines are projected onto a vintage garbage truck, an oft-forgotten chapter in the struggle for equality is shared: the struggle of 1,300 black sanitation workers to organize a union, with the promise of higher pay and safer working conditions. As the display shares, their rallying cry was “I Am a Man.”
“Their stories just tear your heart out,” Morris said. “When you call the sanitation workers second-class citizens, that almost is an upgrade.”
King came to Memphis to lend support to the garbagemen’s plight. He spent his last hours in Room 306. It and Room 307, where his colleagues slept, have been rebuilt to look just like they did 50 years ago. Outside, a wreath adorns the balcony.
As visitors stand in silence peering through glass into the motel rooms, they hear the voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performing from King’s favorite hymn: “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand.”
The role of pastors and houses of worship in the civil rights movement becomes clear in Memphis where, as The Four Way’s Thompson put it, “there’s a church on every corner.”
Clayborn Temple, then an African Methodist Episcopal church, was where the strikers strategized over meals cooked by family members. Despite broken windows and gaping holes in the plaster — stark evidence of a long-leaking roof — the temple is again a center for gatherings on social justice issues.
The church’s civil rights history is shared during prearranged tours. It’s a history unknown even to many locals.
“I grew up in Memphis and had no idea there was a sanitation strike,” said Deondra Henderson, Clayborn’s operations manager. “A lot of times, the sanitation strike is overlooked because of the assassination.”
Beside the church, the city’s I Am A Man Plaza, a modern memorial to the events of 1968, is taking shape. Completion is anticipated in time for April’s 50th anniversary.
The night before he died, King delivered his moving “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple, now the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. It was prophetic.
“I’ve seen the promised land,” he said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Along Beale Street, the downtown boulevard renowned for its blues clubs, it’s easy to overlook the Withers Collection, a small museum that shares the civil rights movement in Memphis through one man’s photographs.
Guide Connor Scanlon estimates that during his life, Ernest Withers took about 1.3 million photographs, starting in middle school, when his sister gave him one of Kodak’s inexpensive “Brownie” cameras.
“Did he ever sleep? Was he ever not looking through a viewfinder?” Scanlon wondered aloud.
Withers became King’s personal photographer during the Montgomery boycott that began just after Rosa Parks’ arrest. He not only documented racial inequality but also poignant, private scenes of King. In one picture, King is seen unwinding on his bed at the Lorraine Motel, two years before he was assassinated on the adjacent balcony.
The boarding house across the street, from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot, is now the civil rights museum’s Legacy Building. There are various exhibits, but most guests gravitate to the second-floor replica of Ray’s small bedroom and the nearby bathroom window through which he stuck a rifle on that fateful April 4.
Just as with John F. Kennedy’s assassination, conspiracy theories continue to cloud King’s death. The museum gives them voice through exhibits that ask, “Did Ray have help?” and “Did someone else do it?”
“We almost do a ‘you be the judge’ kind of thing,” Morris said. “Whatever actually happened … it’s part of the history.”
(Jay Jones is a freelance writer.)