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Martin Luther King Jr. assassination site draws visitors ahead of D.C. memorial unveiling

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The sun was fading behind the old rooming house that James Earl Ray used to view the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the parking lot of the Memphis landmark was an old white Cadillac, just like the one parked there April 4, 1968.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was headed to dinner when he came out of Room 306 and had only taken a few steps before Ray squeezed the trigger. With that, a run-down motel in South Memphis was on its way to becoming a national landmark and, eventually, the National Civil Rights Museum. Now, it is getting a $20 million makeover.

“This is the first major renovation that we have embarked upon for the original museum building,” said Tracy Lauritzen Wright, the museum’s director of administration and special projects. “We are not expanding the footprint of the hotel. We are basically putting up a building within a façade.”

Much attention has been focused on Washington’s Mall these days, where a memorial to King will be unveiled Aug. 28.

But some of that excitement and anticipation for the Mall memorial has trickled to the motel-turned-museum.

“We have already seen our numbers spiking up because of the publicity surrounding the dedication of the King memorial,” said Gwen Harmon, director of government and community affairs for the museum. “Everybody can’t make it to Washington, D.C., this month, so some might say, ‘Let’s go somewhere closer to home.’ ”

The Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the District’s former delegate to Congress and once a close aide to King, is eagerly awaiting the national memorial.

“Martin Luther King understood that undeserved suffering is redemptive,” he said. “The ministers who gave their lives in the struggle understood that suffering would ultimately redeem America.”

The Lorraine, he said, has become symbolic of that sacrifice.

The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles was in Room 306 with King before the assassination. It was Kyles who had invited the civil rights leader to Memphis to aid striking garbage workers.

“I feel so honored that I had the privilege to spend with King the last hour he had on this Earth,” Kyles said.

He’s planning to be on the Mall in a few weeks and is at the museum in Memphis about twice a week.

Many young people struggle with the concept of segregation, Kyle said. “They will say, ‘What do you mean you couldn’t sit on the front of the bus?’

“Society today is so visual. That is why we have a bus in the museum like the one that was burned with the freedom riders and a seat where if you sit down a voice will say, ‘Get up from there!’ ”

The Lorraine, originally named the Windsor Hotel, opened at Mulberry Street and Huling Avenue south of downtown Memphis in the 1920s. In 1942, Walter and Loree Bailey bought the Windsor and renamed it the Lorraine. During segregation, it was a popular venue for black celebrities such as Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole.

But despite people flocking to the site after King was killed, it went into foreclosure in 1982. It was later was bought by a nonprofit foundation that transformed the motel and the rooming house that Ray used into a museum.

The blocks between the museum and Mason Temple, the national headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, where King delivered his final speech, are filled with abandoned properties. The museum’s parking lot, however, is often packed with visitors.

The renovation will include converting some of the rooms that have been boarded up for years into space for exhibits and archives.

“The museum is a historic site, and business has been very successful. We have more than doubled our number of visitors that we had during the early years,” said Wright, who added that the museum generally gets more than 200,000 visitors annually.

“It’s a really powerful place,” she said.

Jackie Smith is keeping an eye on the renovation. Two decades ago, she was evicted as the last remaining Lorraine tenant, but today she keeps vigil outside.

“Dr. King tried to make life better for the disadvantaged, and we have the opportunity to do the same,” said Smith, who for years has complained that the museum is limited in how much it can truly honor King.

“The powers that be have spent money to make this motel a showplace instead of fulfilling Dr. King’s legacy,” she said.

The museum has even tried to hire Smith, Wright said, but she has always declined — and become her own independent historian.

© The Washington Post Company