What is the Lorraine Motel?

Dan Cavallari

In the 1960’s, racial strife had overtaken the headlines of most newspapers throughout the United States. At the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the process of promoting the advancement of African Americans and fighting for their rights, particularly in the southeast United States. When he arrived in Tennessee to aid garbage workers in their strike, King stayed at the Lorraine Motel when tragedy struck. Currently the National Civil Rights Museum, the Lorraine Motel was the site in Memphis, Tennessee where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

King, along with several of his constituents, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, checked into the Lorraine Motel located in the south-end of Memphis on Mulberry Street in late March of 1968. The recent garbage workers’ strike had been the impetus for King’s arrival, and in preparation for his rally, King checked into the Lorraine Motel. On the morning of 4 April, King stepped out onto the balcony outside room 306 and was shot from an adjacent boarding house. While controversy still swirls around the identity of the shooter, escaped convict James Earl Ray was arrested and tried for the crime and even initially confessed to the murder.

Despite the Lorraine Motel’s popularity among black celebrities, King’s assassination plunged the Lorraine Motel into financial turmoil. It remained open and continued its function as a motel and apartment building until 1982 when it closed due to foreclosure. The motel was purchased in 1987 and reopened in 1991 as the National Civil Rights Museum after extensive additions and renovations to the building took place. The museum encompasses both the Lorraine hotel – including the addition added during the renovation – and the boarding house across the street from which James Earl Ray assassinated King.

The Lorraine Motel itself is actually a small part of the museum; the bulk of the exhibits deal with the Civil Rights movement as a whole, highlighting all important events that took place up to and beyond King’s assassination. Stories of prominent civil rights advocates, such as Rosa Parks and Roberto Clemente, feature prominently in the displays. The tour of the museum takes visitors to a recreation of the room in which King stayed, as well as to the room in which James Earl Ray stayed until he shot King from his bathroom window. While the façade of the Lorraine Motel remains identical to the way it looked on the day King was shot, the interior of the motel has been gutted and replaced with Civil Rights exhibits.

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