I took these two photographs at one of the landmark sites of modern American history and African-American commemoration: the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, and which since has been preserved as part of the National Civil Rights Museum. It is impossible to fathom how often the Lorraine has been photographed, from the now-famous picture by Joseph Louw taken right after the assassination to the millions of shots snapped by visitors drawn to the motel over the past half century.
In June 2016, I went to the Lorraine Motel as the photographer for a BBC Radio documentary about the Green Book guides, which were published from 1936 to 1967 to inform Black travelers of establishments that offered safe and dignified accommodations on their journey through the Jim Crow South. Formerly a Whites-only establishment, the Lorraine became one of these havens after it was bought, and renamed, by Walter and Loree Bailey in 1945.
Perhaps because of the assignment I was given, my attention went to the two cars stationed in front: a 1959 Dodge Royal with lime-green fins and a white 1968 Cadillac, replicas of the vehicles that were parked under the balcony of Room 306 at the time of Dr. King’s death. Somewhat oddly, the website of the museum states that the cars “have no historical significance” but are simply “intended to orient visitors to the time period in which they are about to enter.”1
In popular cultural history, the past to which these gatekeepers are set to transport us exists as an amalgam of black-and-white and color images that can be linked to the transition from one to the other in televised representations. I decided to shoot in black-and-white and in color, and what struck me upon viewing my photos were the vastly different historical experiences and discourses conjured by the two visual registers.
Seen in color, the cars convey a sense of historical product placement. They represent the seminal empowerment that cars and car ownership offered African-Americans in the 1950s and ’60s. Automobility meant freedom from a segregated system of rights and amenities, “a partial emancipation of Jim Crowism,” as one scholar put it at the beginning of the post-WWII era.2 The American dream of the open road became accessible to Blacks who could afford it, and beyond their practical use, cars came to symbolize the socioeconomic upward mobility of an expanding Black middle class.
Advertising campaigns by car companies celebrated the heightened visibility of Black motorists, but on the road this visibility often came at a high price. Long before racial profiling was coined as a term, the dangers and humiliations of “driving while Black” were very much in evidence. This is the black-and-white vision of the cars in the Lorraine courtyard: the tragic irony that this presumed safe place for African-American travelers became famous as the execution site of the nation’s most iconic Black leader. (As early as 1955, during the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that put Dr. King on the map as a civil-rights leader, he was stopped for speeding about thirty times by White law-enforcement officers.)
The color photograph of the Lorraine Motel captures the place as a time capsule, a reliquary space of nostalgic preservation. It enshrines the site like an almost eerily perfect Kodak moment, much like the interior of Dr. King’s glass-shielded room, which has been left untouched since the fateful afternoon of his death. The black-and-white photograph offers a very different historical and racial reality, one that feels less removed from the world we live in, despite the picture’s monochromatic rendering. In this image, the commemorative wreath that was installed as a tribute to Dr. King’s final moments and lasting legacy also evokes the unsung numbers of young African-American drivers and passengers who never reached their destination because they were stopped dead in their tracks.
2. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy (New York: Harper Brothers, 1944, 2 vols.), quoted in Thomas J. Sugrue, “Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America,” Automobile in American Life and Society.