William Newman: Standing at the place Dr. King was taken from us all
Lequetta Diggs of Falcon Heights, Min. holds a book about the life Martin Luther King during a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Richard Tsong-Taatarii) MANDATORY CREDIT; ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS OUT; MAGS OUT; TWIN CITIES TV OUT Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — On a muggy morning in early August, my daughter Leah and I were standing quietly on the balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. — the place where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was standing when he was murdered on April 14, 1968.
We already had looked through the plate glass window into the room, preserved as it had been that day — the small TV with a rabbit ears antenna and a clock radio with a face and hands, coffee cups on saucers on a tray. Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel is part of the National Civil Rights Museum.
In front of us, across the carport, behind the main part of the museum, we had an unobstructed view of the former Bessie Brewer’s Rooming House and the bathroom window from which James Earl Ray shot Dr. King. Before we went up the stairs to the balcony of the Lorraine, we had walked through the rooming house and stood at that window staring at the balcony and Dr. King’s room. The former rooming house, too, is part of the museum.
One exhibit reviews the facts of Dr. King’s assassination. It points out that Ray, after escaping from prison and before murdering Dr. King, had lived well and purchased cars even though he didn’t have a job. Ray also secured sophisticated false identifications and after the assassination, fled to Canada and England before he was apprehended.
The official story is that James Earl Ray learned that Dr. King was staying at the Lorraine Motel from the Commercial Appeal newspaper that morning. The exhibit chillingly points out the evidence that Ray, under an alias, had rented a room at the Lorraine Motel two days earlier. The exhibit also notes that the FBI had Dr. King under 24-hour surveillance at that time, and after Ray shot King, the local police didn’t notify law enforcement in the adjacent states of Ray’s escape from Memphis.
Ray accepted a plea bargain of 99 years in Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in exchange for the prosecution dropping its request for the death penalty. We’ll never know what a trial would have revealed, and the prosecution failed to demand a full accounting from Ray as part of the deal. Conspiracy theories have little allure for me, but it’s not easy to accept that Ray stalked and murdered King and then escaped all on his own.
Dr. King had come to Memphis in April 1968 to support sanitation workers who were on strike for a living wage and improvements in their deplorable working conditions. He was staying at the Lorraine Motel because the downtown hotels were reserved for whites only.
While standing on the balcony of the Lorraine on a date close to the 50th anniversary of the “I-Have-a-Dream” speech and 45 years after he was murdered, I struggled to fathom a fact I thought I knew well — that one moment Dr. Martin Luther King, the embodiment of hope for equality at home and peace in Vietnam, was standing right here — on this exact spot — and the next moment, he was dead.
Leah, who is 27, and I had stopped in Memphis as we were driving cross-country in her car, filled with boxes and duffle bags and furniture. She was moving from San Francisco to Brooklyn.
Driving east on Route 40 out of Memphis on our way to Nashville, I found it nearly impossible to convey to Leah how insane the world felt at the time of Dr. King’s assassination and — less than two months later — Bobby Kennedy’s. Death and destruction seemed omnipresent. In my lifetime, President Kennedy and Malcolm X also had been assassinated, and civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney had been murdered; and every day more and more kids were being shipped home from Vietnam in body bags.
As we drove, Leah and I speculated about what America would be today if Dr. King had not been murdered. Would we be closer to his dream? Would America have needlessly imprisoned millions of black men, victims of what white politicians call a war on crime and what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow? Could his leadership have prevented the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? With King as our moral watchman, would America have waged and won the war on poverty instead?
As Leah and I sat quietly for some moments listening to the sound of the tires on the highway, the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, the 19th century poet and abolitionist, kept running through my mind: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘What might have been.’”
William Newman is a Northampton lawyer and host of a WHMP weekday program. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.