'The Fierce Urgency of Now'

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the politics of public memory

The sidewalk at 450 Mulberry St. in Memphis, Tenn., is like no other in the United States. On a wintry afternoon late in December 1996, huddled on a moldy, tattered sofa, sits a solitary African American woman, her face drained of expression as she silently observes the passage of time. She is covered from head to toe in a worn snowsuit, apparently all the protection she has from her long hours out in the cold. To her right stands a flimsy metal folding table and a number of self-made signs, one of which reads "Poverty is Violence." The rough graffiti-marked wall behind her only adds to the sullen aura of this space. It would appear that she has made this desolate side of the street her home, if indeed it can even be thought of as a home.

For more than 4,000 days Jacqueline Smith has staged a one-woman protest against her former home just across the street: the Lorraine Motel — site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — presently known as the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM). On March 2, 1988, police forcibly removed her from the motel. Since that day, through rain and snow, cold and heat, days and nights, Jacqueline Smith has continuously protested the abandonment of King’s ideals.

The Lorraine Motel was no ordinary lodging facility, nor was it a stranger to controversy. On April 4, 1968, King was shot to death as he went for a final breath of air on the balcony outside of Room 306. As if in response to the gunfire, the motel seemed to wither away along with King. A one-time haven for entertainers like Count Basie, Cab Calloway and other black travelers unable to find lodging during the era of segregation, the motel became a cesspool for drugs, prostitution and crime. Yet, despite its fall from grace, the Lorraine Motel had embedded in its walls a memory of King that was more precious than any profit to be yielded from weary travelers in need of a room.

In September 1991, King’s memory took on a more official form when the motel — its infamous balcony still intact — reopened to the public as the NCRM. After an almost 20-year debate over whether King’s assassination should be remembered or forgotten, community members and public officials resolved to use the site to memorialize King and teach the lessons of the Civil Rights movement to new generations. Everyone, it appeared, had finally responded to the challenge of removing the black veil that had been cast in 1968.

Everyone, that is, except Jacqueline Smith, who lost her home as a result of the decision to convert the Lorraine into a museum. Since that time in 1988, she has dramatized the irony and injustice she believes was displayed with the decision to evict low income residents so that King — a man whose very life was devoted to empowering the dispossessed — could be remembered. To this end, she posts a large sign reading, "Boycott the National Civil Rights Wrong Museum — $9 Million Tourist Trap Scam," which is clearly visible to all museum visitors.

Smith is living proof that the political dimensions of memorializing the past can sometimes blur the line between institutional interests and those of everyday people. Smith embodies the seeds of dissent that lie within every act of public memory. In other words, somewhere beneath the surface of all presentations of the past lie the defiant voices of marginalized groups awaiting fulfillment in the crucible of public controversy.

It has been well over 10 years since the Lorraine Motel reopened to the public under its new identity as the NCRM. The museum is the $9.25 million dollar product of local African American community leaders’ efforts to rescue the site from demolition during the early 1980s. Although the museum’s exterior still resembles that of the Lorraine, its interior showcases a chronologically arranged narrative of the major events of the African American struggle for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s. Included throughout the exhibits are collections of historical sources ranging from newspaper headlines and photographs to more interactive media such as audio-video screens and artifacts from the Civil Rights movement. The museum’s two most significant features, however, are the balcony upon which King fell and the room in which he ate his last meal. The latter is designed to appear as it did when King was assassinated.

Although history books and photographs reveal much about King’s death, they cannot possibly capture the poignancy that accompanies the seemingly unmediated experience of the actual balcony upon which the assassination took place. Upon looking up at the balcony, visitors may sense that they are, indeed, near sanctified territory as they are summoned back in time to "the place where it all happened." The balcony, adorned with a memorial wreath, functions as a symbolic gravesite where visitors may feel compelled to mourn and reflect even before seeing the museum’s interior.


However heart-rending the balcony may be, the real climax of the museum experience comes at the very last formal exhibit: the King shrine at Room 306. Visitors’ long and winding treks through the chronologically organized episodes of the Civil Rights movement crescendos into a powerful moment when they at last encounter Room 306 of the motel — the room in which King ate his last meal — from inside of the museum while looking outward onto the balcony.

The King shrine at Room 306 forms the emotional and narrative climax of the museum experience because it is designed to appear exactly as it did on April 4, 1968. Strewn around the room, for example, are dirty dishes, cigarette-filled ashtrays, and a copy of the April 4, 1968, Memphis Press-Scimitar on one of the beds, all arranged to simulate a firsthand experience of the assassination site shortly after King’s death. Moreover, at night, a green-tinted laser beam traces the path of the bullet that killed King from across the street to the balcony, where the beam is then reflected toward the sky. The beam’s upward direction represents the immortality of King’s spirit and his ideals.

By freezing the moment of assassination in time, Room 306 pays homage to King in a rather unconventional way: it laments his death instead of celebrating his life. More than anything else, the power of this scene stems from its disclosure of the death and transfiguration of an American martyr-hero. What visitors are asked to bear witness to is — perhaps even more moving than his funeral — his last supper, his crucifixion and his resurrection. The resonance of this depiction may be so compelling as to move visitors to prayer or contemplation in respectful silence.

As emotionally powerful as the museum’s climactic deification of King is, the moment is altered for those who look out past the balcony to see Jacqueline Smith and her counter-memorial with its large sign reading "Boycott the National Civil Rights Wrong Museum — 9 Million Dollar Tourist Trap Scam."

Smith’s counter-memorial, though shoddy in appearance, is in many ways a clever tactical appropriation of the museum’s memorial to King. For one thing, she has positioned herself so that she can be clearly seen from both the window of the balcony at Room 306 and at the entrance-exit of the museum. Although some visitors may never notice her at all, she has maximized her visibility by sprawling her belongings — banners, sandwich boards, a table and sofa — along the sidewalk across the street.

Referring to herself as "the last tenant of the Lorraine Motel," Smith relishes every opportunity to express her view that the museum represents an egregious sacrilege of King’s memory. Rather than evict the Lorraine’s residents to build a museum, she argues, the most fitting tribute to King would have been to erect a center for housing, job training, education, health care or other services for the poor. By providing assistance to the downtrodden, the work that King himself was pursuing at the time of his death would be resumed.

By positioning herself across the street Smith challenges the official memory constructed at the King shrine by turning the museum’s rhetoric against itself. She attempts to disarm the museum by presenting herself as its morally superior antithesis. Where the museum is reverent, she points out its irreverence; where the museum represents financial restoration, she indicts it on grounds of gentrification; where the museum is preoccupied with the past, she accentuates its obligation to the present. By presenting herself in opposition to the museum, Smith embodies the term "counter-memorial" in a most literal sense. Read together, these two interlocutors serve as a forceful reminder that public memory is rarely consensual or immune to controversy.

If the King shrine represents the museum’s final cadence into reverent repose, then Smith’s counter-memorial is the cymbal crash that jars visitors back to consciousness. Its irreverence violates the sacred decorum constructed in the museum. Caught on this threshold of uncertainty, visitors are faced with a bifurcation of King’s legacy. Smith reminds visitors of the unsettling possibility that the NCRM, in attempting to memorialize King, actually may have denigrated his legacy.

Perhaps more disturbing is visitors’ participation in treating the past as a commodity, a behind-the-glass version of King that can be bought for an admission fee of $8. Smith’s presence, and the poverty surrounding her, is an invitation to accept the more challenging responsibility of honoring King through civic acts that harmonize with his vision of brotherhood and equality.

Smith appropriates hallowed ground to remind Americans of the urgency of the moment, just as King once did on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now." By her presence, Smith challenges visitors to move from being memory tourists to becoming memory workers. In this move from being passive consumers of history to active co-creators of public memory, King’s legacy is most fully realized. Ultimately, that legacy obliges each one of us to embody and enact the Civil Rights movement’s ideals of brotherhood, equality and community.

Dr. Bernard J. Armada has a Ph.D. from Penn State University and has taught in the Communication Department at St. Thomas since 1997. This article was adapted from his dissertation,"‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’: Public Memory and Civic Transformation at the National Civil Rights Museum," for which he received the Gerard R. Miller Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation award from the National Communication Association.