Another View on the Best Way to Create a Memorial for King

A LETTER FROM MEMPHIS

January 20, 1991|By BRUCE GOLDFARB

CHRISTMAS WEEKEND BROUGHT a rare snowstorm and single digit temperatures. A dusting of snow covered the ground. Jacqueline Smith, swaddled beneath layers of thick clothing, ate carry-out chili and hunkered into a lawn chair to prepare for another long, lonely night.

For nearly three years, Ms. Smith has maintained a vigil on the sidewalk of Mulberry Street across from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was slain on April 4, 1968. Her presence is a protest of the construction of a $10 million National Civil Rights Museum, a facility that is as much a garish theme park as a tribute to the great civil rights leader.

Ms. Smith's possessions are covered with sheets of plastic. She has been living on the sidewalk, except for two daily half-hour breaks to use a nearby bathroom, since the State of Tennessee evicted her from the Lorraine on March 2, 1988. Newspaper clips she gives a visitor show her limp body being carried out of the hotel by sheriff's deputies.

According to the clips, Ms. Smith is 39 years old. She lived at the Lorraine for 11 years, and for 15 years she ran the motel's front office. In addition, Ms. Smith conducted informal tours of room 306 -- Dr. King's room -- and served as unofficial curator of the Lorraine Motel.

The city of Memphis has had difficulty coming to grips with the ignominy of being the place where Dr. King was killed. Other than naming a stretch of interstate that passes through town after Dr. King, the only other public tribute is an unpainted steel sculpture located near city hall.

Placed nine years after Dr. King's death, the sculpture was intended to represent the proverbial mountaintop. Rain caused a flowing rust stain to form on the sidewalk that looked not unlike a river of blood coursing into the gutter. Despite scrubbing with bleaches and acids, the stain would not go away.

For years, the city ignored the Lorraine. Room 306 was preserved for posterity by the motel's owners. The window was replaced with an engraved marble slab. An awkward Plexiglas enclosure was built in front of room 306 and the adjacent balcony where Dr. King died. The cement balcony still bears the stains of his blood.

No official memorial was erected on the site. To this day, no street signs mark directions to the hotel. One finds it haphazardly by driving down one-way streets lined with warehouses and vacant homes.

In recent years, the area around the Lorraine had deteriorated to a den of prostitution, drugs and crime. "You couldn't go down there and visit the place without being accosted on the street by prostitutes," said lawyer D'Army Bailey, who conceived of the museum and serves as president of the foundation that will run it. "There wasn't any sort of presentable facility that would do honor to the memory of Dr. King."

There is no doubt that the museum will be a presentable facility. The question, at least to Ms. Smith, is whether the museum does justice to the memory of Dr. King. A good portion of the Lorraine, along with several adjacent buildings, were razed for the development. From architectural models and publicity videos of the proposed exhibits, it looks dazzling.

The museum plans to have high-tech exhibits that will give visitors a harrowing feel for the violence and bravery that marked that dark era in American history. Visitors will be immersed in the sounds, sights and charged emotions that comprised the civil rights movement.

Through sophisticated audiovisual effects and interactive devices, visitors will gain a remarkable sense of watershed events that marked the movement -- the Montgomery bus

boycott, James Meredith's 1961 battle for admission to the University of Mississippi, the 1963 march on Washington and the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Visitors will be able to experience a taste of segregation at a vintage 1950s lunch counter, while viewing filmed scenes of lunch counter confrontations. On a restored Montgomery city bus, audiovisuals and Disneyland-like mechanical devices will give visitors an eerie sense of the experience of black passengers before the bus boycott. After entering the bus, visitors will be yelled at to move to the back.

Visitors will walk on a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge that was crossed on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and be confronted with a line of police decked in riot gear. A life-size projection system and enhanced audio track will place visitors in the middle of a street riot, complete with water cannons and snarling police dogs.

"We want to re-create as best we can a true representation of the era," said Mr. Bailey. "How can you understand the courage if you don't understand the environment in which these demonstrators existed?"

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