Sunday, May 27, 2018
It blew by me un-noticed. I have an excuse – April 4 is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, which this year was on a Wednesday, and only received a minimum of comment on the news. The annual hoopla for the MLK birthday celebration in February received its usual in-one-ear treatment.
People don't commemorate the date of an assassination. It would be a celebration of the man's death. However, King's death changed a lot. His life had been fraught with certain controversies, his womanizing and socialism, but the overall message that he had promoted had been one of freedom, liberty, and recognition of all people and their worth.
He was a thoroughly American leader, one who elevated his people to a status that only Barack Obama was able to demean.
At the time, in 1968, I was a pretty busy guy with becoming accustomed to my brand new wife of only a few months, making plans for the arrival of our child, and trying to keep the Air Force happy with as little effort as I could expend.
From Adel, Georgia, we received news of the awful event in Memphis, Tennessee, which I could comprehend, but was lacking in reference points philosophically to evaluate the implications for the societal change that was about to occur. The Lorraine Motel and the murder scene were very familiar territory for me since I had worked in the penthouse of the Hotel Chisca, 1/2 block away. That was the job I had quit when I enlisted in the Air Force – my first one in Architecture.
Martin Luther King was a name I had heard, but at the time, I had made myself oblivious of any but the most personal news events. I had cognizance of happenings in Vietnam, since there was a fair chance that I might be sent there, but most other news passed before me with little or no notice.
Memphis was damaged forever. White people left for the suburbs; the city of Memphis became overwhelmingly populated by poor Blacks:~70% or more of the population within a decade. When I worked in downtown Memphis starting in 1977, the downtown was empty every night at dark. Architectural projects that had been started before the MLK assassination were allowed to finish, but no more were started. The only major construction within the city limits was Mud Island, which had begun by the city of Memphis in the early 70s and was only continued because it was funded by a bond issue.
In a show of immense will, the Morgan Keegan Company built their tower that opened in the mid 80s, and it languished partially occupied for several years. Memphis has never recovered from the murder of King, and Nashville is now the largest city in Tennessee, a position which Memphis had held for two centuries.
And I was the one who prepared (architecturally) Brushy Mountain Prison to accommodate James Earl Ray, the man who had pulled the trigger on King.
But that's another story.