The National Civil Rights Museum is an intricate complex of historic buildings in Memphis, Tennessee. At the heart of this structure, located at 450 Mulberry Street, is the Lorraine Motel, a site which, despite its unassuming name, has become the unintentional epicenter of one of the most important moments in American history. The significance of this humble-looking motor lodge is immense.
Just after six o’clock on a Thursday evening in April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader and Nobel laureate, was assassinated while standing on the balcony outside of his second-floor room at the Lorraine. King was struck in the face and later died upon his arrival at nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital.
It was eventually discovered that across the street, from the bathroom window of a boarding house, James Earl Ray pointed the sight finder of a 30.06 Remington rifle and pulled the trigger (Ray would later be sentenced to 99 years in prison for murdering King—he died in his cell in 1998). More than fifty years later, and the building still stands. And after years of turmoil and numerous changes in management, it is now, finally, protected.
Today, the Lorraine Motel is a fixture of resilience and heartache—and looks relatively untouched from its 1960s aesthetics. It continued to operate until 1982 when it was shuttered before a controversial reopening where it served as an SRO (single room occupancy) building until its permanent closure in 1988.
Lorraine was dedicated to a museum in 1991 and officially opened to the public in September that same year. Now owned by the State of Tennessee, and operated by the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, the building is under a 20-year lease with the Tennessee State Museum. The sign and façade received some cosmetic work in 2012 (thanks to a generous $28 million renovation budget), but the importance of this unassuming stead can never be painted over.