One of my favorite songs is “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. It has everything I love in a song: a great melody, excellent lyrics, a strong piano line, and of course an emotional swell. So, when we went on our Christmas road trip last year to South Dakota and Colorado, I wanted to spend the first night in Memphis so I could sing that song and see all the places he sings about.
Courtney’s childhood friend and her boyfriend were wonderful hosts and met us at our hotel and took us on a walking tour of downtown Memphis. We started at our hotel, The Peabody, and watched the ducks march through the lobby, we ate ribs at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, we then we walked “10 feet off of Beale”.
As we we got to the corner of S Main St and Huling Ave I looked to the left and saw the Lorraine Motel. I pulled the group down Huling Ave so I could spend a few minutes there. If you don’t know about the Lorraine Motel, you certainly know what happened there.
On April 4, 1968, at 6:01pm, on the second floor walkway of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray.
And on December 20, 2019 at 8:51pm I met God at the Lorraine Motel.
Read – 1 Kings 19:1-13
I tried to imagine what the Lorraine Motel must have been like in the 60s. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself on Mulberry St. It must have been lively place since Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding were all guests at the hotel while recording music in Memphis’s famous “Stax Records” studios.
I then tried to think about just how busy this site must be throughout the spring and summer months when the bulk of the 300,000 annual visitors probably come. I imagined busses bringing loads of school children, families on vacation battling the summer heat in Memphis, and I imagined the normal hustle and bustle of the city as people drove right past this site on a daily basis on their commute or heading to the grocery store.
It was a nice moment of reflection for me, but as I turned to continue on our way to our next stop I noticed a tent pitched on the corner of Mulberry St. and E Butler Ave. There was a small sign above the tent tacked to the telephone pole. The sign said, “Jacqueline Smith In Protest Here 31 years, 342 Days”.
After the assassination of Dr. King the owner of the motel permanently closed room 306 where Dr. King was staying and room 307 next door. The other rooms were converted into residential rooms for low income people in the Memphis area. In 1973, Jacqueline Smith moved into room 303 of the Lorraine Motel.
In March of 1988, the door to her room was pried open and the police picked her up and carried her to the sidewalk out side. The Lorraine Motel had been sold and plans were underway to create the museum. Jacqueline was the last resident and she refused to leave.
As she was placed onto the sidewalk she was crying and said, “You people are making a mistake. If I can’t live at the Lorraine, I’ll camp out on the sidewalk out front.” I encountered Jacqueline Smith on day 342 of the 32nd year of her protest. She was outside for the opening of the museum, presidential visits, and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
Ms. Smith’s protest centers on the fact that Dr. King would have been opposed to the uprooting of the poor in the very place he came to Memphis to fight for. Gentrification came to that part of Memphis and Jacqueline Smith has been protesting everyday and night since.
Elijah expected to meet God in the noise of the wind or the overwhelming power of the fire, but that isn’t where God was. God came in a whisper. God came in the stillness. God came in peace.
Our world is noisy, there are flashing lights, honking horns, dinging cell phones, text messages, weather alerts, social media posts, 24 hour news stations, and enough other distractions to fill every waking moment. We go to church and look for God there, or maybe a Christian music concert. Maybe we crank up a sermon podcast or attend a Bible study and we long to hear God speak to us.
I thought I would feel something standing in front of the Lorraine Motel. I was alone there, almost trying to will God to reveal something profound to me, as I stood in the place where one of the greatest advocates of the poor and mistreated was killed.
Here is how Robin Grearson described the scene on the day of the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King:
Broadcast trucks and media tents, people addressing crowds, people standing in line, people looking for bathrooms. Jacqueline Smith was standing up for the people of Memphis at the same corner where she had been standing for them for 30 years. Now, a circus swirled around her. I watched the people of Memphis, not seeing her.
Until December 20, 2019 at 8:51pm I had never heard of Jaqueline Smith. It was quiet, so quiet on Mulberry St that night. It turns out 5 days before Christmas is not a busy tourist time for the National Civil Rights Museum. If the people of Memphis didn’t see Jacqueline Smith on the day of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, they certainly weren’t seeing her that night.
I took a picture of Ms. Smith’s sign and went to Wikipedia to read about what I was seeing. And then, very quietly there was a whisper. God wasn’t at the Lorraine Motel. God was at Jacqueline Smith’s tent.
The night before Dr. King was assassinated he gave his final speech and it closed with this paragraph:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I felt peace that night on Mulberry Street. God’s voice came clearly through the words of Dr. King as I looked at Jacqueline Smith’s tent: “I just want to do God’s will…And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
It is clear that Dr. King knew the story of Elijah. How else could he possibly have so clearly heard the call of God to do what many thought impossible and impossibly dangerous. How else could he have lived with the threat of death and been able to say those words. On his last night on Earth, Dr. King demonstrated the peace of Christ that we celebrate this time of year.
I didn’t get to talk to Jacquline Smith that night, but I wish I could tell her what happened that night. I wish I could tell her that on the 342nd day of the 32nd year of her protest a 39 year old white man from Atlanta, GA met God on her corner. I wish I could tell her how I finally understood what the “peace that passes all understanding means”. I wish I could tell her that she was the whisper of God in my life.
You see earlier in that speech Dr. King said these words, “Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
I imagine the Jacqueline Smith knows this peace as well, she has lived those words every day for almost 33 years now. I imagine on hot humid nights or cold snowy nights that Ms. Smith says to herself, “…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end…We’ve got to see it through.”
Marc Cohn didn’t sing about Martin Luther King, Jr. in his song. But there is a line toward the end of the song that captures perfectly what happened that night outside the Lorraine Motel.
There was a Gospel piano player who played the piano on Friday nights at the Hollywood Cafe just south of Memphis named Muriel Wilkins. Muriel invited Marc to join her onstage at the Hollywood Cafe to sing Amazing Grace with her one Friday night in 1985. The experience was the impetus for him to write the song.
Here is the line:
Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight”
I never felt more like a Christian in my life than the night I went walking in Memphis.
Jesus was born into a violent and unpredictable world and yet he possessed an unwavering peace. This same unwavering peace that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about in his last speech. This same unwavering peace that I have to believe Jacqueline Smith has as she sleeps tonight in her tent on Mulberry St. This same unwavering peace that you and I have access to because of the birth of Jesus.
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
Sing – Silent Night
Almighty God, grant us in equal measure; Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope in a Savior, Peace in our world, Joy in our hearts, and Love for our fellow man. In the name of Jesus Christ whose birth we celebrate this Advent season, Amen.