I am one of the thousands who descended upon Memphis for the International Elvis Week activities recently. I saw it as a unique opportunity to pay homage to a man whose music had always touched me deeply.
I participated in the all-night vigil at Graceland with other Elvis fans, then spent much of the next day visiting the Elvis Presley mansion and milling about in the throng on Elvis Presley Boulevard, where one could buy souvenirs and other memorabilia from countless shops. My friends and I even visited the "Heartbreak" Hotel Cafe. We didn't want to miss a thing having to do with Elvis.
But there was something else in Memphis we wanted to see. Soon after arriving in the city, we noted that the Lorraine Motel was on one of the simplified tourist maps Memphis makes available. Perhaps you don't remember the name. But picture a balcony, with people pointing off into the distance. The Lorraine Motel was where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. My friends and I wanted to visit that motel on Mulberry Street. We found it was easier said than done.
As our navigator, I was responsible for getting us around town -- which up to this point had been a simple task. But either Mulberry Street wasn't on the map, or only partial information was made available. We had several maps, none of which was suitable, and so I insisted that we buy a complete city map. Following our foray to Graceland, and after a good bit of circling around the neighborhood, we found the street, but not the motel. It took directions from two workmen to lead us to the place.
The motel's front desk was not air conditioned; there was only a small fan to cool the hot, humid air. A courteous young woman handed us the key to the room where Dr. King had stayed, and we went forth. Outside, a wreath and plaque adorn the door. Inside, the room is devoid of any furniture, although articles, books and photographs line the walls. In the center of the room is a display case where donations can be made.
Silently, we read and looked around the room for a few minutes. We closed the door behind us, I took a few photos and we left. Across the narrow street was one lonely man selling photographs. No records, T-shirts, postcards, pins or ashtrays for sale.
The contrast between the two shrines in Memphis hit me in the gut. We had spent several days tracing the life and death of a man who made beautiful music. He had parks and boulevards named in his honor. The personal relationship Elvis had with each of his fans is a very private one, and if you don't feel it yourself, it can't really be explained.
But Martin Luther King gave his life for freedom and human dignity, yet the shrine to his memory was hidden in an obscure part of town. One of my friends remarked that, of course, the town fathers don't want Memphis to be known as the city where someone was killed. But we remember Dallas, and we should remember Memphis. Learning that the Lorraine is scheduled for some renovation was small comfort.
My pilgrimage started out as homage to the singer we like to call "the King." It ended as a tribute to another King as well. His legacy too lives on, regardless of how hard the city tries to hide the place where he fell.
The writer lives in Washington.