A one-woman protest at the Lorraine Motel

After 26 years and 124 days, Jacqueline Smith is still standing under her blue tarp and umbrella at the corner of Butler and Mulberry Street in Memphis, the location of what used to be the Lorraine Motel.

In front of her, two white Cadillacs are parked below the balcony of room 306, the place where Dr Martin Luther King took his last breath after he was shot by James Earl Ray, April 4, 1968 at 6:01 .pm.

To her right, as far as the eye can see is a changed neighborhood. The old properties have been replaced with luxury apartments, lofts and condos, and even an old boarded-up warehouse is now Central BBQ.

Protest sign in front of the Lorraine Motel, Mephis, Tenn. (Hamil R. Harris/Washington Post) Protest sign in front of the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn. (Hamil R. Harris/Washington Post)

But Smith is not at peace. Perhaps she will never be content. “We don’t own one thing down here. Look at that, they didn’t put a BBQ across from Graceland.

Memphis has always been a city where the two biggest attractions are memorials to two dead men: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Elvis Presley. Near Smith’s perch is a sign that reads, “Stop worshiping the dead.”

And Smith is troubled that King’s legacy in Memphis is tangled up with gentrification. She points out that many blacks can’t afford to live around the Lorraine Motel, which is now a museum. Even using the bathroom is hard for her, she said. “I used to have a friend down here where I could go, but now they are gone.”

Smith pulled a paper from under the tarp and read me a line about her belief that Memphis is the second-most segregated city in the U.S.

And yet Jacqueline Smith stands fixing her tarp to protect her papers and books from an evening storm. As we talked, she pulled a literature book and read a quote from poet T.S. Eliot: “We fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything triumph.”

As I headed back to my car, I noticed a big rainbow. “It was double rainbow, did you see it,” she asked me.

“What are you going to do with this information?”asked Smith, who worked as the desk clerk at the motel for 15 years in addition to being a tenant.

I remember visiting that motel before it became the National Civil Rights Museum.

“They have so many museums, but Mrs. King wanted the focus to be on King’s life, practices and the principles of Dr. King and not just focus on his death,” said Smith who signed an old newspaper article and gave it to me before I left.

“Hamil, keep trying to help others in memory of Rev. King, J Smith,” she wrote.

Related:

At the scene of a tragedy, National Civil Rights Museum preserves history

 

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.

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