04 April 2008

"...shot rings out, in the Memphis sky"

Some meandering thoughts on this, the 40th anniversary of a national tragedy. Martin Luther King, Jr., the day after a spooky premonition-filled speech, indeed "went to the mountaintop", thanks to an assassin's bullet. A bullet that forever changed the great city of Memphis, Tennessee.

While Mempho was a bit behind places like Atlanta with race relations -- there was the matter of a garbage workers' strike, the reason King was in town to begin with -- overall, things weren't as volatile there as opposed to, say, Montgomery, Alabama or Jackson, Mississippi. Simply put, there ain't no way Dr. King would've walked out unprotected like that onto a balcony anywhere in Alabama, or especially (!) Mississippi. But he did in Memphis. And paid with his life.

You're no doubt familiar with the two pictures commonly shown - especially the men still on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, pointing in the direction of the building from which James Earl Ray pulled the trigger.

Today, the Lorraine is home to the National Civil Rights Museum. And, like Beale Street, it's been given a new lease on life.

Compare that to when I was in college 71 miles away in Jonesboro, Ark. When I first started at ASU (August 1984), Beale was a slum street where one took their life in their own hands even during the daytime! But by 1986, the seeds of a new Beale had begun to germinate. Rock 103 - long before a certain company (rhymes with Clear Channel) ruined it - set up its studios in a storefront on Beale. Things were beginning to cook. And look at it now!

At the same time, the Lorraine Motel was a run-down building in a very seedy area. It'd been foreclosed on a couple years earlier after a sad decline (MLK's assassination pretty much spelled the beginning of the end for the Lorraine - once a premiere quote-colored-unquote hotel in Memphis). Talk of the Civil Rights Museum was already happening when I was in the area, but was seen by many as a pipedream. And look at it now!

During my idyllic college days, I didn't think much about either. My roadside geek/road geek tendencies were very much in remission then. And my sense and appreciation for history was nowhere near as sharp (some would say obsessive!) as it is today.

These thoughts were going through my head today as I googled the Lorraine, hoping to filter through all the present-day NCRM ... I wanted to find vintage pictures of the motel back in her prime. Back when it was "just another motel." I checked e-Bay. Nada. Certainly the Lorraine had a postcard. All motels did, after all.

Then again, maybe not for these quote-colored-unquote motels. Back then, travel for African-Americans wasn't the idyllic pastime as it was for us honky crackers. One mandatory piece of literature for black travelers was something called The Negro Motorist Green Book. Or "the Green Book" for short. It was a travel guide with a state-by-state/city-by-city listing of accommodations and restaurants that were, in the present vernacular, "black friendly."

"Carry your Green Book with you. You may need it," the cover states in a very disturbing tone. The idea was to save one from embarrassment (or worse!!!!!) were a traveling black family find themselves facing motels, restaurants and service stations that would've sooner let a skunk in bed with them than serve a person of color.

ANYway...... I suppose sending postcards gushing with messages like "Having a great time on the road, we'll make Dallas tonight, damn these Louisiana roads they're terrible, but that diner in Ruston was divine! Love, Ethel" wasn't a regular practice of black travelers back then. Not when most of them no doubt traveled with a leery eye to any pitfalls that might lurk. Hoping their car wouldn't break down. Or be tagged by the police.

Well, my searches came up largely dry, except for a picture I found which gave me chills when I first saw it:
What you're looking at is Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel mere hours after MLK was shot. A Life magazine photographer (Steve Schapiro) found himself on that very motel balcony, and took the ballsy step of entering King's room. There you see everything just as MLK left it. A half-filled coffee cup sits on the table, along with a spent half-pint of milk. Styrofoam cups and - God love 'em - those rippled motel drinking glasses. The wadded shirt. His suitcase.

And the television was still on. Schapiro looked up and saw a newscast, and the graphic behind the anchor with Dr. King's face. And that's why he took this picture. Here's a closeup of the TV:
The television got my first attention (I'll pause while you say "That's SO not like Talmadge Gleck!"). It's a stately 19-inch Philco "Starlite" black-and-white model. A thing of beauty.

My first thought (after I stopped swooning over the Philco!) was, "That's not Walter Cronkite, nor is it Chet Huntley." I was able to zoom in further on the TV's channel selector. It was tuned to Channel 3. WREC-TV (now WREG), which - then and now - is the CBS station in Memphis.

Either this is from a CBS News special ... or else it's from Channel 3's 10:00 p.m. (Central time, remember) newscast. The graphic image and text behind him looks a bit too well-produced (read: network quality) for 1968 Memphis television, but the anchor doesn't look like any CBS personality I know of back in that day. And looks very much like longtime Channel 3 newsman Paul Dorman. Below is a line-art drawing of Dorman, from a circa-1973 TV Guide advert...
For me, it's pictures like the one Schapiro took which drive historical events past home. It isn't the well-worn "pointing" picture; it's the empty milk carton, open suitcase and still-on television which breathes a disturbing reality into what happened. The coffee cup, according to Schapiro, was half full -- implying that King was still nursing it, and was out on the balcony just for a minute to chat with his entourage.

Look again at that picture. The television is showing an obituary visual ... for the man whose suitcase and other items you see below it!! If I think about that long enough, it royally creeps me out.

This is history. A friend of mine said once that it isn't just in the books or pictures; history lays in the story it tells.

And 40 years later, we all lament this loss. And I for one can only imagine just how harmonious we all would've become if Dr. King were still around.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Can we overcome?" Gleck

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