For every point, there is a counterpoint. By the middle of the 19th century, the Memphis economy boomed thanks to cotton. The industry relied on slave labor. By the start of the Civil War, Memphis sided with the Confederacy. After the brief Battle of Memphis, the Union flag was flying over the city. Race riots broke out post-war.
In the 20th century, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made one of his most indelible speeches from Memphis. But the unequal working conditions of our sanitation employees, and King’s subsequent assassination, left their own marks.
The strife forged heroes.
Students such as Elaine Lee Turner and Maxine Smith joined protests and sit-ins to encourage desegregation of our public places. Smith escorted the African-American students who integrated Memphis City Schools in 1961.
Countless citizens marched in solidarity with Memphis’ striking sanitation workers in 1968, carrying the “I AM A MAN” signs that would forever become part of the American conscience. Faith and civic leaders including the Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Sr. and the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles helped to galvanize support.
You might remember that Robert R. Church Jr. helped establish the Memphis branch of the NAACP in 1917. In 1977, Memphis native Dr. Benjamin Hooks was elected executive director and CEO of the national organization. In 2007, Hooks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony, President George W. Bush described Hooks as someone who always “extended the hand of fellowship” not because it was an easy thing to do, but because it was the right thing to do.
In the pages that follow, I’ll take a look at more of Memphis’ civil rights heroes and at the institutions and iconic places where we honor them. The vision and groundbreaking work of these individuals fits them solidly in the Memphis tradition of dreaming and doing boldly.
Rest in Peace
Robert R. Church Sr., Dr. Benjamin Hooks and Maxine Smith are among the influential Memphians buried at Elmwood Cemetery. The cemetery, which dates to 1852, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Africa in April
Dr. David Acey, a retired University of Memphis professor, founded the Africa in April Cultural Awareness Festival with his wife Yvonne, a retired Memphis City Schools teacher. “We wanted to produce a festival to celebrate African-American culture and invite everybody. We started in 1986 with five people walking down to Main Street in African clothes with a few drums,” Dr. Acey reminisces. Today, the festival attracts thousands with its vendor marketplace and music showcase in Church Park. But this is a party with a purpose: each year, the festival spotlights a different African country. Delegates from the selected country visit Memphis to share their perspectives in fields including art, education and economics. In fact, the annual festival kicks off with an Entrepreneur’s Luncheon, an idea exchange among U.S. and African business leaders.
A College with Roots
In 2018, LeMoyne-Owen College celebrated the 50th anniversary of the merger that created it. The merger combined two private, church-based institutions with a history of serving black students. The roots of one of these institutions, LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School, can be traced to 1862, when the American Missionary Association opened a school for freed and runaway slaves in Union-occupied Memphis
In 1945, Walter Bailey purchased the Marquette Hotel in Downtown Memphis. He renamed the hotel Lorraine after his wife, Loree. The Lorraine was a lively place where African-Americans could overnight in our segregated city. In time, the guest register included names such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin and Jackie Robinson. Stax Records’ artists could be found hanging out on property—in fact, soul hits “In the Midnight Hour” and “Knock on Wood” are said to have been written at the Lorraine.
During the sanitation workers strike of 1968, another high-profile guest was known to frequent the hotel: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4 of that year, the Lorraine’s place in history was forever changed. King was gunned down on the balcony outside of his motel room. Loree Bailey suffered a stroke as a result, passing away five days later.
Like so many places in Downtown Memphis after 1968, the Lorraine landed on hard times. By the early 1980s, the property was facing foreclosure. Around the same time, a Yale-educated lawyer named D’Army Bailey (no relation to Walter) moved back to his hometown of Memphis. Bailey had been dedicated to the cause of civil rights since his days as a student. After law school, he’d helped to dispatch lawyers and students to Memphis in support of the striking sanitation workers. Over the course of his career, he would work to advance civil rights as a lawyer and circuit court judge.
In 1982, Bailey organized a campaign to save the Lorraine. Locals including Chuck Scruggs, a radio and television celebrity, and A.W. Willis Jr., a lawyer, businessman and state legislator, were among those who joined Bailey’s crusade. For $144,000—including a commitment for the final $4,000 from Jack Belz—the Lorraine was purchased out of foreclosure.
With the property secured, the visionaries behind the initiative set their sights on a greater goal: transforming the Lorraine into a civil rights museum. Construction began in 1987 through private support and grants from city, county and state government. Sadly, Walter Bailey passed away the following year. But the dream of opening the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel endured, becoming reality on September 28, 1991.
I remember standing in the courtyard that day, when hundreds of white doves were released to signal the beginning of a new chapter for the Lorraine. Among the attendees were Rosa Parks and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was at the Lorraine among King’s entourage at the time of the assassination. In the years since, everyone from U.S. presidents and world leaders to students and tourists have visited the site to learn about the struggles and triumphs of the fight for civil rights.
The museum also hosts the annual Freedom Awards to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to global human rights causes. The recipients represent a who’s-who of humanitarians, including Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Carter, Marlo Thomas and Bono.
In 2014, the museum, which was created on a budget of less than $10 million, unveiled a major reinvestment. The $28-million renovation added interactive exhibits, listening stations and touchscreen activities, ensuring that the site’s power to educate remained as effective as ever in our technologically advancing world. “Exploring the museum is profoundly educational, viscerally compelling and indelibly imprinted on our minds in a way that can powerfully transform the human spirit,” describes Beverly Robertson, who guided the renovation before retiring from her 16-year tenure as museum president. Even in this new chapter for the site, Robertson says that it will always “[stand] as a testament to and stark reminder of the sacrifice required to secure freedom, justice and equality.”
Just as King had a dream that couldn’t be extinguished, a group of Memphians had a dream to honor his legacy. Fifty years after his death, the National Civil Rights Museum has become an international treasure keeping both dreams alive.
April 4, 2018, marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. In the year leading up to the anniversary, the National Civil Rights Museum engaged people everywhere in MLK50, a period of reflection and recommitment to King’s vision. As April 4 drew near, the museum, along with other sites around Memphis and the country, hosted commemorative events. Here at home, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder kicked off a two-day symposium with a keynote speech. On April 4, a Day of Remembrance unfolded from the museum campus. The Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Sr. spoke; the Rev. Al Green and Kirk Whalum provided a musical tribute. At 6:01 p.m., the bell of Clayborn Temple began tolling 39 times, once for each year of King’s life, signaling an international moment of reflection. Afterward, a crowd gathered at Crosstown Concourse for an evening of storytelling with civil rights crusaders including U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
The temple that sounded the international moment of reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death holds a sacred place in Memphis civil rights history. In 1893, it opened as the largest church building in the U.S. south of the Ohio River. In the mid-20th century, an African Methodist Episcopal congregation moved in, ushering in an era of social consciousness. As a hub for the civil rights movement, Clayborn Temple welcomed King among other organizers and activists. It served as the gathering point for marches to City Hall on behalf of Memphis’ striking sanitation workers. Unfortunately, a period of disuse and disrepair followed. In 2015, however, an organization called Clayborn Reborn undertook work to revive the temple. In 2017, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Clayborn Temple to its portfolio of National Treasures and announced plans to help rehabilitate the site. In the year of our city’s bicentennial, Clayborn Temple is once again home to a congregation, public events and community spaces, with the new I Am a Man Plaza located right next door.