In January, dramaturg Dustin Trabert made a trip to Memphis to visit the historic Lorraine Motel in preparation for his work on CCCT’s production of THE MOUNTAINTOP by Katori Hall.
“Memphis, Tennessee: “home of the blues, FedEx, Elvis Presley, Rendezvous barbecue, and hoodoo.” In this way does playwright Katori Hall describe her hometown, setting of her play The Mountaintop, a captivating reimagining of the last night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, spent in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.
America’s racial past is inscribed in the very geography of Memphis. The city sits at the mouth of the fertile Mississippi delta, as its ancient Egyptian namesake sat on the Nile. It even has a pyramid. But Egypt’s agricultural economy was never as dependent on slavery as that of the American South; Memphis was a center for the trade in both cotton and slaves.
In 1866, a year after the Civil War, a riot against Freedmen and black Union Army veterans left 46 black citizens dead and many of their homes, churches, and schoolhouses burned to the ground. The 14th amendment, intended to guarantee full citizenship to former slaves, was passed directly in its wake.
By King’s day, in 1950, though African-Americans constituted 37% of Memphis’s population, they occupied 65% of the city’s substandard housing; most majority-black neighborhoods lacked basic improvements like paved streets, curbs, and gutters. A contemporary map of the city reveals how segregated the city remains, even today.
But Memphis has also become a center of American culture. The American music tradition – blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll – flowed upstream, out of the delta, honed in the nightclubs of Beale Street and the Stax and Sun recording studios. In the deeply segregated Jim Crow era, the humble Lorraine Hotel and its later motel addition was one of the few open to the black luminaries of the entertainment world who passed through the city.
The Lorraine Motel, situated on Mulberry Street in the south edge of downtown Memphis, is a scant mile and yet a world away from Memphis’s high-toned Peabody Hotel, with its ducks paraded to and from a marble fountain each afternoon. Its neighborhood was historically, and in King’s day, predominantly black; Katori Hall’s mother grew up just around the corner. Today dilapidated shotgun homes and warehouses are giving way to gentrification and a new identity for the neighborhood: the South Main Arts District.
The Lorraine today, along with the boarding house across the open courtyard from where James Earl Ray fired a single bullet, is the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, tracing black history in the United States from the slave trade to the present, with a special emphasis on the King years from 1955 to 1968. Following exhibits on bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and iconic marches, the narrative solemnly gives way to Dr. King’s last campaign, for the labor rights of the sanitation workers of Memphis, a fight that was to act as prelude to a broader Poor People’s Campaign.
Room 306 itself, where King and his closest associate, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, usually stayed, has, after decades of neglect, been restored to its 1968 appearance, as though Dr. King had just stepped outside, soon to return. If Room 306 remains eternally frozen in a pre-assassination past, one of countless places where a tired and tireless leader lay his head, then the balcony, with its perpetual wreath of remembrance and the square of new concrete, replacing that once stained with blood, is forever marked as a site where a martyr breathed his last.
And so the Lorraine Motel stands, with Ford’s Theatre and Dealey Plaza, as one of the indelible points on our map of political violence, a site where the possibilities of America took an irrevocable turn, some years ago, on April 4, 1968.”
This post was written by CCCT