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Column: A twist of decision

Posted: October 1, 2018 3:40 p.m.
Updated: October 2, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Tink and I sat in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, one of the South’s Grand Hotels. It was Christmas Day and for three hours, we sat on chairs covered in rich brocade and did what seems to have become something of the past -- people watching.

An elderly couple tried to figure out how to take a selfie in front of the enormous, lavishly decorated tree. A young couple entrusted a stranger to take their photo in front of the fountain where the drake chased the four female ducks beneath a vast floral arrangement of deep coral gladiolas which drooped sadly on the left side.

A young girl, perhaps 5 or 6, in a red bouffant dress with a green sash, twirled around impatiently in a circle while her parents and grandparents talked. A man in a tweed jacket with a scarf flung haphazardly around his neck repeatedly disregarded the sign that said, “Do not pet the ducks” and tried to touch them for the sake of a photo.

All the picture-taking reminded me of one of the 20th Century’s most powerful photos, taken in Memphis, just a short walk from the Peabody lobby. It is that of a handsome, fairly young man lying in a deep red pool of blood on the concrete floor of a second-story balcony. I looked above us. The Peabody has a two-story lobby with an open balcony that runs all the way around. When the ducks march into the fountain at 11 a.m. each morning then leave again at 5 p.m., that balcony is often crushed with people who hang over the railing, watching the entertaining ducks.

The ceiling above the lobby is created with Venetian glass murals which add light, style and taste to the Italian Renaissance architecture. Probably few people take time to truly notice the ceiling but I dropped back my head and studied it for several long minutes then I looked to the second floor balcony and thought of the man, the photo, the other second floor balcony and how a change of mind had changed history.

The Lorraine Motel sits about a mile south of the Peabody but in style and safety, it was light years away in April of 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his entourage had decided to make a trip to Memphis in support of a lengthy strike by African-American sanitation workers who were asking for fair wages and equal treatment. It was in Memphis, the night before an assassin’s bullet struck him down, that Dr. King would make his famous “Mountaintop” speech.

Dr. King had been booked to stay at the Peabody but, according to both Ralph David Abernathy and Andrew Young, two of his closest, most trusted associates, they changed their minds at the last minute. The Lorraine was owned by African-American businessman Walter Bailey (and named for his wife), so Dr. King and his staff wanted to show support for the minority-owned business.

I stared at the balcony of the Peabody, tucked in and safe. Not like the Lorraine that had an open-air balcony that faced a boarding house across the street.

“Dr. King was supposed to be here on April 4, 1968,” I said softly to Tink. “Had he been here, he wouldn’t have been killed. Here, he would have been safe.”

If you’ve never visited the historic site of the Lorraine Motel, I highly recommend it. Its museum is stirring and powerful, with Dr. King’s room preserved and his personal suitcase open, holding the items that were with him on that trip. It was so moving that it brought me to tears, staring at the spot on that balcony where Dr. King’s days on earth ebbed quickly away.

It is equally sobering to sit in the Peabody lobby, looking at its second floor balcony. A change of mind. A change of history.

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