“It was a shock when Dr King was killed,” he says. “It made people afraid to step out. People are still in shock, 50 years later.”
It is indeed approaching half a century since the civil rights activist and spiritual leader of Black America, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, was gunned down on the balcony of a downtown Memphis motel. The 50th anniversary falls on April 4 and as the city prepares for an event that no one wanted, people are also acknowledging its deeper significance. For, bleak as the milestone may be, the assassination is woven into the fabric and personality of this old cotton town on the Mississippi river just as surely as the music.
Some 200 miles south, the state of Mississippi – once infamous for lynchings of black people – has faced up to its own demons with the opening of a civil rights museum in the state capital, Jackson. This is on my itinerary, but I start with Memphis and that difficult anniversary. The cardinal points of any visit are Graceland, Elvis Presley’s kitsch mansion (and now shamelessly hard-sell retail park) in the south of the city; Sun Studio, where the curl-lipped kid from Tupelo, Mississippi recorded his first single, That’s All Right, in 1954; the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which celebrates the Memphis label’s unrivalled stable of artists from the Fifties to the Seventies (Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and many more) – and the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr King was killed by a single bullet to the head in the early evening of April 4 1968.
The thing you quickly realise, as you get to know this hugely resonant city, is that the music and the murder are strangely but inextricably linked. Abioto, who takes me on a city tour, is not just a local musician who was privileged to play behind the great bluesman, B B King, “a couple of times”. He also claims to be from “the most arrested family in Memphis” thanks to the frequency with which his sisters were detained on civil rights marches and campaigns in the Sixties. The “Movement” (non-violent action for voting rights and desegregation, in defiance of the ingrained racism of the Deep South) and the blues came from the same place in the heart.
“Take Why I Sing the Blues,” says Abioto, citing one of B B King’s most famous songs. “That’s a song about the plight of black people in America. They might not have been out the front marching, but they wrote songs about it.” The Lorraine Motel was where the musical and political intersected in the Memphis of the Sixties for, as a black-owned establishment, it was one of the few hotels where African Americans were welcome to stay and free to mix with whites.
The Stax artists all stayed there – two of popular music’s greatest songs, In the Midnight Hour and Knock on Wood, were composed in Lorraine Motel rooms in the years before the assassination. In 1968, Dr King and his entourage checked in for the same reason as Wilson Pickett and the rest – it was one of the few places that would have them. Dr King was in town to support striking sanitation workers. Just after 6pm on April 4 he was standing on the balcony outside his room, number 306, when he was fatally hit by a sniper’s bullet fired from the window of a boarding house across the street. The convicted assassin, a white supremacist named James Earl Ray, remains the subject of numerous conspiracy theories and many people believe J Edgar Hoover’s FBI was behind the murder.
The Lorraine Motel never recovered. It finally closed in the late Eighties and in 1991 reopened as the National Civil Rights Museum, retaining its mid-century signage and classic motel frontage and replacing its corridors and rooms with exhibits chronicling Black America’s struggle for justice and freedom. Across Mulberry Street, the brown-brick building from which Ray allegedly fired the fatal shot is now an adjunct to the museum that explores the background to the assassination.
For “MLK50”, as the museum is tagging the anniversary, Faith Morris, the chief marketing officer, promises “a collection of images never seen before and an emotional piece taking you through Dr King’s journey”. In the permanent galleries there are brilliantly realised tableaux dramatising civil rights milestones such as the Montgomery bus boycott (we are all Rosa Parks as the driver angrily intones: “Please move to the back of the bus. I need that seat NOW”), and loops of mesmerising footage, notably of the “Mountaintop” speech (“And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you…”) that Dr King gave at Mason Temple in Memphis on the night before the shooting in which he seems to foretell his own death.
The final exhibit is Room 306, viewed through a glass panel and re-created from FBI photographs to look as it did at the moment King was shot (ashtrays full of butts, the remains of a room-service meal and an undrunk cup of coffee). The Lorraine Motel shares with America’s numerous other museums dedicated wholly or partly to the civil rights movement (see below) a sense of unfinished business summed up by that tableau. “Dr King is still talking about what we’re talking about,” Morris, tells me. “If he was alive now he’d be talking about mass incarceration, jobs, poverty. Poverty is still a big issue here.”
With those sentiments ringing in my ears I travel south from Memphis on Highway 61, into one of the poorest, yet richest, slices of the most notorious state in the union: the Mississippi Delta. Through the 20th century the state of Mississippi was the dark heart of American racism where the Ku Klux Klan called the shots and African Americans (and those who stood up for them) were killed with near impunity – cases that stand out include the murders of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, the activist Medgar Evers in 1963 and campaigners Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in 1964 (the 1988 film Mississippi Burning was loosely based on their story).
Until recently there was no state-funded institution to acknowledge this shameful chapter in Mississippi history and honour the men and women who fought injustice. But this has now been rectified. I am bound for Jackson to visit a linked brace of new museums, the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which complement the Memphis museum and tell the civil rights story from a uniquely Mississippian perspective.
To left and right, as I travel south, is the alluvial plain of the Delta, where cotton pickers and sharecroppers once toiled. Machines do the picking these days but the broken-toothed homes by the roadside testify that Dr King’s vision has yet to be realised for many. Nevertheless, there is pride in what people have achieved here. Scores of cast iron plaques, known as “historical markers”, commemorate both bluesmen and civil rights foot soldiers – from Jackie Brenston (in Lyon, Coahoma County), who played with Ike Turner on Rocket 88 in 1951, said by some to be the first rock ’n’ roll record; to freedom campaigner Amzie Moore (outside his house in Cleveland).
Moore provided a safe house for the likes of Dr King and Medgar Evers. His modest home, the first brick-built house owned by a black family in Cleveland, features high windows at the back of the house so a would-be sniper couldn’t get an accurate shot at those inside. Evers took even more precautions at his home in Jackson – as well as the high windows, he dispensed with a front door. It didn’t do him any good, however. On June 12 1963 he was shot in the back by the side entrance. His blood still stains the concrete.
His widow, 85-year-old Myrlie Evers – a powerful civil rights advocate herself – is guest of honour at the opening of the two museums in Jackson. By the time she gets to her feet she has already walked around the exhaustive and redemptive galleries, seen the KKK robes “found in a Jackson home”, the “lynching monoliths” commemorating the more than 600 victims of lynching in the state and the films about her husband and about Emmett Till.
When she speaks, linking the past with the present, she does so with all the passion and cadences of Dr King himself. “I wept because I felt the blows,” she says. “I wept because I felt the bullets. I wept because I felt the tears. I wept because I heard the cries. But I also sensed the hope that dwelled in the hearts of all those people and children. These two museums share that same heart.”
As America faces the significant anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the mountaintop he conjured still seems a long way off. But in Memphis and Jackson they see the way there. As Dr King himself said, in the eerily prophetic speech he gave the day before he died, “I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
More sites dedicated to the civil rights movement
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (civilrightsmuseum.org). Open daily except Tues, 9am-5pm; $16 (£11.30). For events about the assassination anniversary, see mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org.
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (mcrm.mdah.ms.gov). Tues-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; $8.
Medgar Evers home, Jackson: guided tours by appointment; details on Tougaloo College website (tougaloo.edu).
Mississippi Blues and Freedom Trails; msbluestrail.org, mississippimarkers.com/civil-rights.
Center for Civil and Human Rights (civilandhumanrights.org). Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; $21.77. The Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site (nps.gov/malu) includes his childhood home and tomb. Open daily 9am-5pm; free.
Civil Rights Institute (bcri.org). Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; $15.
Selma Interpretive Center (nps.gov/semo). Open Mon-Sat, 9am-4.30pm; free. National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (nvrmi.com). Open Mon-Thurs, 10am-4pm; $6.50.
Rosa Parks Library & Museum (troy.edu/rosaparks). Open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-3pm; $7.50.
Amzie Moore House Museum; email email@example.com to arrange a visit.
Memphis black history tour; arrange though the Slave Haven Museum (slavehavenmemphis.com): priced by group size/tour length.
You can also learn more about the civil rights movement in sections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (nmaahc.si.edu) in Washington DC. Open daily 10am-5.30pm; free (with timed passes).
Bon Voyage (bon-voyage.co.uk) offers eight nights in Memphis and Mississippi (including three nights in the classic Peabody Hotel in Memphis and two nights in Jackson) with return flights on United Airlines and car hire, from £1,655pp.
deep-south-usa.com; memphistravel.com; visitmississippi.org