Editor’s note: This article was taken from an April 2007 blog chronicling a trip with KIPP Ascend Charter School students to historic civil rights locations in the south.
Only two other men were with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was killed on April 4 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
One was Rev. Ralph Abernathy, co-founder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The other was Rev. Samuel Kyles, who stood next to King just seconds before a bullet struck King down.
The final stop for students of KIPP Ascend Charter School on their black history tour of the South was Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is built onto the Lorraine Motel, 450 Mulberry St., where Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The museum is literally taking a walk back in time. Beginning in a theater with a film about King, one section of the museum leads to another. Along the way, the story of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King is told.
The progression leads inevitably and dramatically to room 306, where King spent his last hours alive.
Room 306, which is not open to the public but visible through glass, was remodeled to look as it did on the day King died. The balcony where he stood is visible through a large glass window but is also not accessible to the public from inside or outside. A wreath hangs on the balcony marking the spot.
Abernathy and Kyles were in room 306 with King, who usually stayed in room 307, which was occupied at the time.
Abernathy left the room to go down to the first floor below. Kyles and King stepped out onto the balcony. Moments later, Kyles was placing bed sheets around King’s head to try and stop the bleeding from a gunshot wound.
Kyles is the only survivor of the three men-Abernathy died in 1990. Before venturing into the exhibit, the students heard from Kyles about that unforgettable day.
“There are no words to express now what I felt, and there were no words then to describe what I felt,” he said. “I thought I was having a nightmare, but I was awake. I wasn’t asleep.”
The bullet shattered the side of King’s face and severed his spinal cord, Kyles said. The bullet and gun were designed to cause such damage.
“Here he was, with all those oratorical and leadership skills dying on a balcony,” recalled Kyles.
King and the others were in Memphis to help striking black sanitation workers.
“He could have been anywhere else, but he was here helping garbage workers,” Kyles said.
Across the street from the motel side of the museum is the building where the shot supposedly came from. The Civil Rights museum acquired the property in 2001 and turned it into an extension of the museum. The bathroom location where the assassin reportedly shot King is recreated to look as it did on that day, but is off limits to the public.
Before this special conclusion to their trip, the students visited other locales in the South associated with King.
The King Center in Atlanta contains powerful exhibits and artifacts, including the actual cart that carried Dr. King’s casket at his funeral.
Some of the students left the center to tour Dr. King’s childhood home, which is located nearby. Michael Blair, 14, said he was struck by King’s family and upbringing. He learned that a young Martin Luther King and his brother would sometimes get into trouble. Some people, including Blair, probably have a hard time imagining King as a rabble-rousing youth. Blair, however, could relate.
“Me and my brother, even though he’s older than I am, we sometimes get into trouble,” he said.
When the students visited Atlanta’s History Center, they were in for a treat. A special exhibit featured hundreds of personal papers by Dr. King on display. The documents included speeches and letters-some typed but mostly handwritten by King. Other papers included Dr. King’s invitation to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, and his handwritten letter from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963.
Some of the speeches, dating back to the 1950s, were actual sermons he delivered when he was a young preacher and before anyone knew of or heard the name Martin Luther King Jr.
Many of the students already knew about King, but they learned a lot more on their trip.
Mia Oliver, 14, for instance, never knew that Dr. King had been stabbed and nearly died. The incident took place in 1958 during a book signing in Harlem, N.Y. A disoriented young woman plunged a six-inch blade into King’s chest. The incident was mentioned at both the King Center and his private papers exhibit. Doctors attending Dr. King at the time said that if he had so much as sneezed, he would have died from a ruptured artery.
“I didn’t know he was stabbed before he got shot,” said Mia, who also learned how much Dr. King was influenced by Gandhi, who preached and practiced non-violence.