In Memphis, presence of kings is in the air

Presley and King dominate memories on the Mississippi

January 14, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun Staff

January is a month full of memories and meaning in Memphis, Tenn., a city with strong connections to two American kings, Martin Luther King Jr. and Elvis Aaron Presley, both of whom were born this month.

They loom large in our collective consciousness, but their presence is heightened in this slow Southern city by the mighty Mississippi River across from Arkansas. Plenty of people tell you about the songs and the speeches. Folks call them by their first names, as if they knew one or the other. Many did, such as the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, former president of the NAACP, and his sprightly wife, Frances, known to many black Memphis residents as their former school teacher.

In one unforgettable hour, the Rev. Billy Kyles and Frances Hooks, civil rights movement veterans, walked my sister Meredith and me to the motel room where King spent the last hour of his life in the spring of 1968. The young Kyles was inside that room, chatting with King and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy as the three men bantered and laughed, preparing to go to dinner at Kyles' house.

"I'm in no hurry," King said lightly, sitting in his chair. The four words stayed with Kyles. As the only one left to tell the tale, he retells it with an intensity that transports you to another country, another time in the same place.

Outside on the Lorraine Motel balcony, the spot where King was slain is marked by a simple wreath. The National Civil Rights Museum is built all around the motel, with the room where King stayed on display behind a glass door.

Kyles said he was convinced there was a mark and a price on King's head. He recalled the radio kept broadcasting his schedule and even his motel room number as a harbinger of what was coming. No matter what time they decided to go to dinner.

Yet, he said, the night before, King delivered his "mountaintop" speech as hard thunder and rain fell down on the roof, sounding like bullets that made him wince. Threats had been pouring in since the Nobel Peace Prize laureate arrived to lead a sanitation workers strike in Memphis. In his soaring speech, King declared he feared no man and that he had seen the promised land, though, he added, "I may not get there with you." It was one of the great perorations of the Baptist preacher's life.

Kyles shared a firsthand insight not found in history books: Giving the speech seemed to ease King's mind. He talked through his fear of death, he said, through the speech on the eve of the assassination. To stand there and then with a silver-haired man who was King's friend, ally and witness in death was extraordinary. It made the past present for two sisters, one a small child who cried and the other a newborn on the April day he died.

Could going to Graceland that afternoon come close? Heartbreak Hotel is a long way from the Lorraine Motel, once a downtown hub for blacks - segregated, it goes without saying. The contrast between the two kings couldn't be clearer. Like night and day, the difference illuminates Memphis' divide between black and white - and by extension, other American cities fractured by race.

So the shrine that Elvis built sparkles everywhere, from the pearl piano to the Jungle Room, the favorite banana-peanut butter snack recipe, the gold records and fabulous guitars, and pictures of young Priscilla, whom he fell for when she was a girl of 14. The extravagance and genius of the blue-eyed boy who came to Memphis from Mississippi is displayed in a panorama not far from where the other King met his end. But by the time you leave, it's true: Graceland's magic dust rubs off on you.

After a journey across Memphis, we found what the kings had in common. Both 20th-century icons had the power to move millions with their tremendous voices and words, that much we knew.

But the two sons of the South had something else special: a rare ability to reach across the race divide and distance. Just as King could evoke visions of a "palace of justice" to throngs both white and black, Presley could sing the blues like no other white man. Influenced by gospel and soul, the sounds of the Delta, Elvis crossed musical color lines and confounded both sides as an artist and performer.

Presley recorded "If I Can Dream" three months after King was assassinated, an echo and tribute to King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

King and Presley blended white and black worlds and brought them closer. If they are not bridged yet in 2007, it's not their fault. Stepping off the nostalgic streetcar to Beale Street, the tragic undertones of their stories can be heard. Two cherished kings died here, but they long live in Memphis.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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