PCS Blog

The Lorraine Motel

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 24 August 2013

The Mountaintop is a fascinating reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth. Exhausted after delivering his magnificent and memorable “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, an exhausted King retires to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel when an unexpected visit from a feisty young maid compels him to confront his own humanity, doubts and fears.


In reality, King was assassinated while standing outside that very hotel room, the day after giving his legendary speech. The set of the play, down in the Ellyn Bye Studio, will recreate the inside of the now-famous room at the Lorraine Motel. Let’s explore the history of that motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.


The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, is one of the most famous motels in the United States, but for the wrong reasons. It is not known for its view or its accommodations, but as the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
The motel at 450 Mulberry Street on the south edge of downtown Memphis started its life in the mid-1920s as the Windsor Hotel, a 16-room, one-story hotel six blocks east of the Mississippi River. It then became the Marquette Hotel, and was renamed a final time when Walter Bailey and his wife Loree purchased it in 1945. Bailey named it The Lorraine Motel after his wife and the song “Sweet Lorraine,” added a second floor, and made other changes to turn it from a hotel into a motor hotel, or motel.
Although it had started life as an “all white” establishment, it eventually became an upscale place for African Americans looking for a motel in Memphis. It provided both a place to stay and home-cooked meals. It was very popular with musicians since it was easy walking distance from Beale Street, the center of life for many African Americans in Memphis, and very near Stax Records. That proximity drew patrons including Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Ethel Waters, Cab Colloway, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Nat King Cole. In fact, at least two popular songs were written at the Lorraine, “In the Midnight Hour” and “Knock on Wood.”
When King stepped out on the balcony outside room 306 just before 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, he talked with friends in the parking lot below. He told Saxophonist Ben Branch, “Ben, I want you to sing ‘Precious Lord’ for me [at the rally] tonight like you never sung it before. Want you to sing it real pretty.” He then turned back toward the room to finish getting ready for dinner. That is when a bullet ended his life.
Ironically, the woman for whom the motel was named also effectively died that night. Loree Bailey suffered a stroke while on the switchboard and died five days later—the day of King’s funeral.
Walter Bailey continued to run the motel, setting aside rooms 306 and 307 in honor of King. However, Bailey declared bankruptcy in 1982, unable to keep the motel open. It was going to be sold at auction but a “Save the Lorraine” group, part of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, bought it at the last minute for $144,000 in December 1982 with the intent to turn it into a museum.
The final tenant, Jacqueline Smith, who had resided there as a housekeeper since 1973, refused to leave and was forcibly evicted. With that, The Lorraine Motel closed for good on March 2, 1988. It was overhauled to become the National Civil Rights Museum, which was dedicated on July 4, 1991 and officially opened to the public on September 28, 1991.
In 1999 the rooming house across the street, from which Dr. King was shot, was bought and refurbished to become part of the museum. The foundation that runs the museum is also responsible for the safekeeping of the evidence and files concerning the assassination. These artifacts, including the rifle and deadly bullet, are on display at the museum.
Also on display is room 306, the so-called “King-Abernathy suite” where King and his friend and colleague Ralph David Abernathy stayed on that trip and many others. It has been meticulously restored to the way it was on the night King died, and can be viewed through a plexiglass window. There is a permanent wreath on the balcony at the spot where King was standing when he was shot, and the cars in the parking lot below are replicas of those in the lot on that fateful day.

Spend an intimate evening with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop, playwright Katori Hall's imagining of his last night on earth. Running August 31 - October 27 in the Ellyn Bye Studio.



Comments (0)

There are no comments for this entry yet.

Join the conversation!

Portland Center Stage welcomes your comments and criticism.

We invite you to share your comments with us on our Facebook page.


For current and upcoming shows, please see our Season Calendar.

Sign up for the PCS email list.

Season Sponsors