Remembering Dr. King’s Message in Memphis

“And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world-and nothing’s wrong with that-this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Earlier this summer, I traveled from Ohio down through the south on a civil rights tour. I stopped at many important sites from the Civil Rights Movement; most left me speechless. One afternoon in particular I was filled with mixed emotions, mainly anger and confusion.

The Lorraine Motel, on the grounds of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the city where the 1968 Sanitation Strike took place, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and right there at the site of the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated, was to be a pivotal stop on the journey. Walking toward the museum entrance, I passed a woman sitting behind a table, a large sign in front of her saying, “Welcome to the $27 million James Earl Ray Memorial. You are about to desecrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” I’ll be completely honest, my initial thought was to disregard the display. Amongst our group, we considered what that sign meant, but all brushed it off and continued to the museum.


Jacqueline Smith’s vigil, outside the National Civil Rights Museum

Upon entering the museum’s second floor, a classic car was displayed. As I moved closer, I read it was James Earl Ray’s vehicle. Odd, I thought. I looked to my partner and we both had a “what’s up with that?” look about us. I moved along and saw a timeline on the wall detailing Dr. King’s whereabouts and activities in the months leading up to his assassination, alongside those of James Earl Ray. I didn’t see the value in reading about what Ray might have been doing, I also felt this portrayed Ray as an equal to King. I walked further along and came to what was a replica of Ray’s room, as well as the bathroom where he supposedly shot from. I left this area quickly, as it just didn’t feel right. In the next room, there was a tremendous glass display case full of Jame Earl Ray’s belongings, clothing, papers, and his gun. There was then information on various conspiracy theories. I realize the King family has stated they do not think James Earl Ray killed MLK, but at this point in my visit, I was so fed up that I just wanted to leave that area altogether. The lower floor was less offensive but equally disappointing. Along the wall, another timeline was written to encompass key events in the Civil Rights Movement. There were some quotes and statistics, but no artifacts or interactive aspects. It ended with a few statements about how far the movement has come and how great Memphis is today.

photo-13I walked out of the building with my partner, each of us desperately needing some fresh air. We sat at a bench and shared our thoughts. We were both mad and confused about what we had just seen. Realizing perhaps we should have stopped by to learn what that woman was protesting, we headed to the corner to speak to her. She told us a bit about herself, her name is Jacqueline Smith and she has been protesting for over twenty-five years. She’s been speaking out against the museum, because of its glorification of James Earl Ray and its lack of education about the civil rights movement. I expected this museum to tell not only the history of the movement, but also to have it be a tribute to the life and work of Dr. King. Years ago, I went to the Sixth Floor Museum which, from my recollection, focused on JFK’s life and legacy; something that was sorely missing here. In Dallas, they did speak of Lee Harvey Oswald, of course, but the tone seemed much different.

photo-14While speaking with Jacqueline Smith, she handed us a flyer and explained how $27 million dollars have gone into various renovations on the museum. All the while, crime and poverty are soaring in Memphis. Gentrification is occurring around the museum, and this only continues to negatively affect the poor. As Ms. Smith went on, it was quite clear that if they really wanted to honor M.L.K. and his teachings, they would have spent that money more wisely. Dr. King spoke of lifting up the poor and helping those less fortunate. Why is Memphis and the museum doing so little to carry on King’s legacy as it should be? Did they forget the Poor People’s Campaign?

“Yes, it will be a Poor People’s Campaign. This is the question facing America. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Memphis has not met its obligations and responsibilities to its poor. The city’s level of poverty and crime are in dire need of change. According to the Huffington Post, violent crime in Memphis went up in 2011, and rose again in 201224/7 Wall Street names the city as the fifth most dangerous city in America. With the city’s current deficit of $26.5 million dollars, which could reach 36.5 million this year, one could only expect crime rates to rise. Budget “fixes” typically cut community and social services the most. This deficit and increasing crime rate are only part of the story.

From the 2012 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, Memphis is one of the poorest cities in our country.

Memphis has the second highest poverty rate among cities with more than one million people. If cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants are included, Memphis falls to fifth place. Memphis has the third highest child poverty rate for cities with populations over 500,000 people.

The Fact Sheet states that in 2012, Memphis had a poverty rate of 27.20%, and 42.10% of those in poverty were children. People of color were three times as likely to be poor than whites. The working poor are represented in these stats, with half of those under poverty working full or part time. Hungry kids, struggling families, folks working and still not making it. The communities Dr. King most passionately fought for are being neglected, while gentrification squeezes those left out of their own neighborhoods.

In King’s final manuscript, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” he wrote that the “curse of poverty has no justification in our age.” So when we look back on the work and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., we must ask ourselves again, how is Memphis honoring his legacy? Why would nearly $30 million dollars be raised for a museum which does little to teach King’s message, while the city and people around it fall apart? Beyond the scope of Memphis, how is this country honoring King’s legacy? His words ring just as true today as they did in 1967. I see more inequality and more poverty each day, while resources dwindle and the burdens of the oppressed only become greater. Are we taking steps forward to the Promised Land, or are we stumbling backward? Do we have the will?

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Note: Standing in front of The Lorraine was a chilling experience. Being at the motel, seeing and being where Martin Luther King spent his final moments, I can’t put it into the proper words. That part of this day hit me deeply. The museum is undergoing renovations. In 2014, the other section of it, which based on previous photos I’ve seen, will feature interactive displays and in-depth displays about the civil rights movement. That makes me feel a bit better, though until they re-evaluate and change their “memorial” to James Earl Ray, I cannot in good conscience recommend visiting the museum and giving money to their cause. If they decide to give back to the community and truly honor King’s legacy, and change the museum, I will perhaps be able to support it. I will write further on my trip, and in particular can suggest The National Underground Railroad Freedom CenterBirmingham Civil Rights Institute, amongst others. More posts on my trip coming soon.

Quotes were pulled from Dr. King’s sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.”

Original draft published at

Updated 4/4/14 (pictures)