Last year I went to Memphis for Spring Break. The real goal was to visit Graceland, but several things that we did in Memphis seemed far more interesting, in retrospect. But perhaps the most important one was a visit the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
I wasn’t yet born when this took place, but the event is such that it still resonates today, and makes a person want to be a part of it in some way. It was a rainy day, which seemed to fit with the somber mood that a visit to that place should carry. It would have been strange to go there on a sunny day.
On our way through the streets of Memphis, traffic was being diverted. I asked a police officer why, and he said “Klan rally.” I thought I had misheard him at first, because I couldn’t imagine that the Klan even has that kind of strength anymore. But I was in Tennessee, which isn’t much like the streets of Chicago where I live.
The detour through downtown Memphis wasn’t much in terms of added time, but it did give me a renewed appreciation of what Dr. King’s life meant. He was probably the scum of the earth to those in the Klan, and his death was probably a cause for celebration in their ranks. What he stood for is the polar opposite of their world view, and that’s why he must always be remembered.
I’ve been to the King Center in Atlanta, and seen the house where he grew up. I’ve watched his speeches and read his letters and learned about the challenges that he faced in his lifetime. But standing on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, and peering into the room where he was staying at the time he was killed, was a profound experience for me.
King stood for great things, and he helped to bring about seismic shifts in our society, but we aren’t yet where we need to be. Names like Trayvon Martin still come up in the news, and our president is reviled in some of the most grotesque racial language I can imagine.
We need to keep on working for the things that Dr. King lived and died for. And that’s why taking a day in January to remember that is important.