The Crucible



If the late film director Robert Altman made one of his intertwined tales that portrayed modern Memphis, it would have looked something like this: An ensemble cast, each character powerful and charismatic, each representing what Memphis has become since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: D'Army Bailey, Lois DeBerry, Roscoe Dixon, John Ford, Dick Hackett, Benjamin Hooks, J.R. "Pitt" Hyde III, Tom Jones, Bill Morris, Chuck Scruggs, the Rev. James Smith, Maxine Smith, Jesse Turner Sr., and A.W. Willis Jr. For the plot, white mayors, businessmen, and government officials working hand-in-hand with black politicians and professionals, contrasting the impossibility of such cooperation here in the dark spring of 1968. And for the movie's setting: One could ask for no more scarred or sacred ground than the place that saw the sacrifice of an American icon.

This, however, is no fiction. These personalities clashed, cooperated, sometimes circumvented one another, and formed coalitions toward the unprecedented goal of building a National Civil Rights Museum on that bloodstained ground. The story's conclusion, however apparent to anyone who's visited the South Main district since fall 1991, was anything but foregone in the days, months, and years after the mortal wounding of King at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. >>>

Save the Lorraine

Had you gone to Mulberry Street ten years after King's death, you would have seen two ramshackle shotgun houses, a raggedy warehouse, an abandoned nightclub, and a lounge around the Lorraine Motel. Aside from the lounge, the only profession functioning near the Lorraine was the world's oldest. Prostitutes rented far more rooms at the rundown motel than travelers, though a few permanent tenants lived there. Weeds pushed through the concrete of the dry swimming pool. Paint flaked from the room doors, a few dangling open from their hinges. Busted beer bottles and broken window glass from the rooms littered the pocked blacktop parking lot.

Visitors still wanted to see the forgotten pivot point of American history. They stood on the broken glass and looked up toward the balcony. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) — the organization King helped found in 1957 and died as president of — installed a plaque and a glass enclosure around the door to Room 306. You could walk upstairs and see the meager shrine inside Room 306. Motel owner Walter Bailey's (no relation to D'Army Bailey) wife Loree suffered a brain hemorrhage the day of the King shooting and died five days later. Walter displayed her high-heeled shoes and books from her library near the sheet that had been thrown over King after the shooting and the dishes from which he ate a last supper of catfish. A few Ernest Withers photographs of King in Memphis adorned the walls. Visitors could drop a coin or fold a bill to place in a slot outside the display. It seemed fitting, some said, that the place where King's life came to a premature end had become forsaken.

D'Army Bailey, born in Memphis, was active in civil rights as a student at Southern University from 1959 to 1962, and as an organizer in Manhattan after completing his law degree at Yale University in 1967. Bailey returned to his hometown to practice law in 1973 and first visited the Lorraine in 1976. "It was depressing," he recalls. "All I could figure was that the white city fathers saw it as a tragic site that would go away. There was a certain air of defeatism among black people. They didn't seem to perceive that this place of tragedy was a treasure."

Chuck Scruggs, known today as Mr. Chuck, host of a local children's television show, came to Memphis as general manager of radio station WDIA in 1972. In the late 1970s, Scruggs' wife Imogene led guests of the Memphis Council for International Friendship, mostly government officials, business people, and teachers from abroad, on tours of Memphis. "One of the requests they'd make was to see the site where Dr. King was assassinated," Scruggs recalls. "We'd stand there and the visitors would be in awe of the site."

In 1982 Scruggs and WDIA completed a successful fund-raising drive to save the all-black town of Mound Bayou.

Walter Bailey, still scraping by at the Lorraine Motel, reached out to Scruggs for help to preserve the site. Scruggs, aglow from the triumph in Mound Bayou, consulted his weary staff about a potential "Save the Lorraine" campaign. "They said, 'No way,'" he recalls.

"That was my reaction too," Scruggs continues. "But I thought beyond the process of raising funds toward what would happen with that site without some special care. I told my staff, 'If this becomes a warehouse, the blacks will feel that the whites should have saved it, and whites would feel that blacks should have saved it. It would cause hostility.'"

Meanwhile, D'Army Bailey's interest in the Lorraine grew. "I didn't make any commitment in my own mind that I was going to do anything about it," he says. "One day I was going to the little convenience store on the corner of Pauline and Vance to buy beer. There's a laundromat next door where Walter Bailey, the owner of the Lorraine, went to do his laundry. As he came out of the laundromat, I came out of the convenience store, and we talked out front there about his property. If the prostitutes hadn't been providing business, he couldn't have kept the doors open."

Challenges Ahead

Prostitutes and the nickels left at the Lorraine shrine failed to keep the motel afloat, and the property went into foreclosure in April 1982. Scruggs' sense of responsibility to history overpowered his fatigue. "Fifteen years after the assassination nobody did anything to protect the Lorraine," he says.

"Credibility was at stake."

Scruggs contacted key WDIA staffers A.C. Williams, Carl Conner, and Bill Atkins, along with prominent African-American banker and accountant Jesse Turner Sr. and D'Army Bailey — whom Walter Bailey had suggested — to meet at the Petroleum Club downtown. Turner, president of Tri-State Bank, would be named the first black Shelby County Commission chairman in 1983. He epitomized the credibility Scruggs desired for the project. They formed the Martin Luther King Memphis Memorial Foundation, which D'Army Bailey chartered as a tax-exempt nonprofit. At its outset the foundation had no money and no designs on the motel apart from protection. Scruggs was the first president.

The foundation made another key addition in terms of credibility with A.W. Willis Jr., an attorney and mortgage broker. Willis earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1953 at a time when African Americans were segregated from Southern law schools. He returned to Memphis and opened the first integrated law firm in the city, which represented James Meredith in 1961 when Meredith broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi. Willis built more political muscle in 1964 as the first African American elected to the state general assembly since Reconstruction and as the corner man in Harold Ford Sr.'s 1974 election to Congress.

In existence for only a few days, the group found much to accomplish. First, they received a letter from Coretta Scott King's attorney requesting that they not use her husband's name. Members rechristened their group the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation. Scruggs visited Walter Bailey, asked him to take down the shrine in Room 306, and struck a deal to purchase the Lorraine for $240,000. Scruggs obtained a stay on the foreclosure and hatched a plan to raise the necessary funds. D'Army Bailey recalls the difficulty early on. "When we started to raise money to renovate this place, we only had one corporation, Lucky Heart Cosmetics, that gave us any money. Paul Shapiro, the owner, donated $10,000 for the effort, and we put him on the museum board."

History for Sale

A crowd of curious citizens and TV cameras crowded the Shelby County Courthouse steps on the cold and breezy day of December 13, 1982, to see history sold. The Lorraine foundation had failed to raise the $240,000 to buy the motel's mortgage, making the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination the featured property at a foreclosure auction.

D'Army Bailey, Scruggs, Willis, and Turner represented the Lorraine foundation, with Bailey doing the group's bidding against six others including Harry Sauer, the holder of the Lorraine Motel mortgage. The foundation carried $65,000 — $10,000 from Paul Shapiro and $55,000 from donations — to the courthouse steps that morning. James Smith, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — the union of Memphis sanitation workers — delivered to the group a check for $25,000. Other bidders dropped off as the price of history jumped in $5,000 increments. But it became clear to the foundation that their $90,000 would not carry the day, particularly as they looked over at their only remaining competition, Sauer.

As the figure neared the foundation's threshold, Turner made it known that Tri-State Bank would loan the foundation $50,000 on a handshake if they could find an underwriter. Willis searched the crowd for friendly faces, and found Paul Shapiro of Lucky Heart to guarantee $25,000. AFSCME's Smith guaranteed the other half, boosting the foundation bidding power to $140,000. Bailey says that he went $4,000 past the foundation's limit, and punctuated his last bid to signal the exhaustion of funds to Sauer. "I bid on up to $144,000 and said, 'And not a penny more.' [Sauer] understood that if they bid again, they were going to own the building.'"

Sauer went silent and the gavel dropped.

"It was a glorious feeling," Scruggs recalls.

Bailey concurs, adding, "But it was still a rundown whorehouse. What are we going to do with it?"

From Whorehouse to Museum

The first years were a struggle. "We went to [Walter Bailey] and told him to keep operating it, and keep whatever money he made," D'Army Bailey recalls. "I would have to call Memphis Light, Gas and Water and ask them not to shut off the utilities, and to their credit they didn't. We didn't have any money to pay our loan for six or seven years."

D'Army Bailey assumed the foundation's presidency from Scruggs in late 1983 and took a dominant role in shaping the project. "It was my idea to take the property and make it something that captured the essence of the 1960s civil rights struggle. Black people were not engaged by '82. White people, students, and liberals were not engaged in activism. So, here I had the place where King died, which is a symbol of activism. It came to me that if we're going to have the site of King's death, let's use it to tell the world about the whole struggle."

Though Bailey claims the concept, Scruggs and others credit Willis with naming it the National Civil Rights Museum. Bailey acknowledges Willis' contributions, though he says that he and advertising executive John Malmo actually named it.

Tom Jones became involved in the Lorraine project in 1985 while serving as an aide to Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris. "The person we dealt with the most in those days, and the unsung hero of the museum, was A.W. Willis," Jones recalls. "The county became involved because of their respect for him."

Morris had been Shelby County Sheriff when King was assassinated, and transported James Earl Ray from London, where Ray was apprehended, to Memphis. Elected county mayor in 1976, he recognized the unique opportunity to make the museum a reality. "We'd approved projects for different constituencies, but this was the first time that I'd had the opportunity to take a strong stand for the African Americans in our community," Morris explains. "It was the desire of the black leadership in Memphis to have this, and I thought it was an appropriate thing to do and aggressively supported it."

Bailey says that city mayor Dick Hackett was a willing and powerful ally as well. The mayors' participation in the museum project contrasts sharply with Henry Loeb's refusal to negotiate with Memphis sanitation workers. The city and county's initial involvement amounted to $10,000 for a consultant to issue a call for bids on the project. "When we saw Ben Lawless' plan, it clicked right away that this was the guy we'd need," Bailey says.

Lawless, a retired exhibition director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, first came to Memphis in the early 1980s to consult with an upstart Elvis Presley Enterprises as it attempted to make a tourist attraction out of Graceland. Jones explains Lawless' impact on a public suspicious of the project's merit: "All of a sudden, people understood the quality of it."

With the property acquired and concept in place, the foundation needed only to collect Lawless' estimated cost for the project: $8.8 million. The museum design firm Eisterholdllewellyn won the privilege to develop the exhibits. Distinguished historians Spencer Crew and James Horton — both African Americans — defined the story told in the museum. "We were only $8.8 million and the $50,000 that we owed Tri-State Bank short," Bailey quips. "Ben said to get half of the money from the state, 25 percent from the city, and 25 percent from the county. Meanwhile, Willis had asked Rep. Roscoe Dixon to introduce a bill for $10 million for this project."

A Symbol of What Memphis Could Be

Jones and morris, though supportive of the project, understood that the public might not wholeheartedly concur. "It was an incredibly hard sell," Jones explains. "The political dynamic was against doing something 'black.' The county legislative body was predominantly white, Republican, and the city's was essentially the same. This project was the crucible for Memphis."

Meanwhile, Willis and Bailey, along with John Dudas and Ann Abernathy of the Center City Commission, burnt countless gallons of gasoline on I-40 between Memphis and Nashville as they aggressively pushed the project in the state legislature. They went door to door down the State House halls seeking votes for the bill Dixon had introduced — with the request reduced to $4.4 million per Lawless' suggestion of a state, county, and city split — to finance the museum's construction. State senator John Ford and representatives Dixon and Lois DeBerry rallied other black legislators to show united support, and the bill passed the state legislature in spring 1986. Plenty of well-intended financing projects go no further than a passing vote, but this one had the inimitable Ford behind it. It passed through the Senate finance committee without a hitch — a bright spot in Ford's tarnished legacy.

Jones thinks that the museum development marked a point of arrival in Memphis' history. "This was the first time that African Americans with a big idea sat at the same table and hammered it out aggressively, and as assertively and as honestly as they could, and got us to a different place as a city," he says. "This museum could symbolize all that Memphis can be. I don't want to overstate it, but there seemed to be a new momentum to reaching across racial divides that were like chasms in this city." Bailey says that with the state funds approved, the city and county fell in line with their shares. The National Civil Rights Museum had $8.8 million behind it by summer 1987, a time of triumph and impending tragedy. Willis, one of the inspirational and indispensable figures in the making of the museum, fell ill and died July 14, 1988, at age 63.

Controversy followed the museum's windfall. Ford disputed the selection of Tony Bologna as architect on the project, recommending James Lindy instead. Eventually, state architect Mike Fitts, who supervised the project, chose the black-owned Nashville firm of McKissack and McKissack.

The Lorraine Motel finally ceased operations January 10, 1988. Longtime Lorraine tenant Jackie Smith refused to leave. She closed herself up in her room and was forcibly removed on March 2nd. She set up a protest outside the museum that continues to this day. Despite lawsuits, civic arguments, and Smith's civil disobedience, construction of the National Civil Rights Museum began June 25, 1990.

Power Struggles

D'Army Bailey recognized the need to diversify the Lorraine foundation's board of directors and add to the group of political professionals and civil rights veterans he'd assembled. "We needed to raise a half-million dollars for artwork for the museum entryway and to finance operations," Bailey explains. "I had come to know a handful of white businessmen on the board of directors of Leadership Memphis. When I needed money to do this artwork, I decided to go to Pitt Hyde."

Hyde says that the museum concept fit nicely with the philanthropic goals of the Hyde Foundation to promote education in Memphis and make the city attractive to skilled workers. His involvement also fulfilled a personal ideal. "I'd been very supportive of the movement," Hyde says. "I was not an activist or involved, I was busy running a business, but I was always supportive and followed the things that were going on very closely. It's a very easy subject to get involved with."

As the project's driving force, Bailey felt a singular responsibility to the museum, but less so to his board. Bailey maintains that he could not work with the Nashville development group — which included Fitts, Lawless, historians Crew and Horton, and the McKissack firm — while clearing every decision with the Memphis board. "They knew things were happening," Bailey says, "but they didn't have any grip on them, because they were isolated from it. All they could do was keep the pressure on me to open up and put them into the process. I was not willing to do that. Tensions developed."

Bailey disrupted meetings to prevent his board from offering input on any aspect of the museum. "I would conduct a one-man filibuster to keep them from voting if necessary," he says. "But you know that you're creating a situation where something's got to give, when you're creating that much tension."

"The meetings were explo-sive," Jones recalls. "There was name calling and vilification. In time it just wore a majority of the members down. It became a regular feature of the meetings. Those days were often D'Army screaming at Pitt Hyde, or somebody else."

"It was a power struggle," Scruggs says.

Born on the Fourth of July

The museum moved forward despite the deepening of personal conflict on the board. On July 4, 1991, a crowd of over 5,000 gathered on a steamy morning to witness Rosa Parks cut a red, white and blue ribbon at the museum dedication ceremony, and give new life to the scene of seismic tragedy on Mulberry Street. "When I came to Memphis to join the march along with Mrs. King [April 8, 1968], I could not even think about coming to this site," she told the crowd. "I did not want to see the place where he lost his life. But today I'm very happy and proud to be here and be part of this museum."

Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, then thought to be flirting with a run at the Oval Office, looked on from the platform of dignitaries as Jesse Jackson addressed the contingent. "I stood here 23 years ago when the fateful shot was fired," Jackson bellowed. "It's tough to be here. The wound is still open."

Jackson brought special attention to D'Army Bailey from the podium that day, but Scruggs says that the event celebrating the museum's beginning helped bring about the end for its founder. "D'Army forged the July 4th opening of the museum," Scruggs says. "He set that without the board's approval. We were sort of shocked. He'd had things printed up and invited people. We thought, 'This is his party.'"

Certain political implications of that day further illustrated the differences between Bailey and board colleagues. "Some of us felt that maybe Bill Clinton shouldn't be there, or that someone from both sides should be there," Scruggs says. "I was concerned about the organization getting caught up in political conflict. I didn't know who was going to be in office next time and what support we'd need."

Bailey maintains that state architect Mike Fitts set the July 4th date at one of the many Nashville meetings that the Memphis-based museum board members did not attend. He says that operating the board democratically would have slowed the project down. "I wasn't going to put that to a vote, I was going to do what Fitts said and have the opening July 4th. They got mad because I had to be heavy-handed about it," he says.

"Their complaint was, 'D'Army's style. He won't listen to anybody. He wants to run everything his way. He's a dictator.'"

When asked if he indeed ran things as a dictator, Bailey says, "Yes. After all, I was trying to build the museum in Nashville, and the two weren't compatible. You couldn't have it both ways. We were already doing it with professionalism in Nashville. It wasn't a difficult choice."

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 28, 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum opened to the public when museum foundation charter members Bailey and Scruggs joined Allegra Turner and Archie Willis III, wife and son of Jesse Turner and A.W. Willis Jr., respectively, to sever symbolic chains of oppression. Meanwhile, Jackie Smith, a once-promising opera singer who lived at the Lorraine and guided tours of its humble shrine to King so many years earlier, continued her protest of the new facility. She blared King's delivery of his "I Have a Dream" speech from a portable cassette player during the opening festivities. Touted as the first comprehensive treatment of civil rights history, the museum hosted between 800 to 900 visitors that day.

Bailey Gets the Boot

Perhaps, as Bailey asserts, the museum required a bullish, dominant leader to see it to completion. That job done, though, the museum board sought change. "Members of the board felt that we were on the verge of squandering everything that we had worked for," Jones says. "This institution is bigger than all of us. Chuck said, 'If we all have to go, then let's all leave. It's this museum that's important.'"

Scruggs backed these words up less than a year after the museum's opening. "I led the effort to get Bailey off the board." Scruggs explains. "I was chairman of the by-laws committee. Man, they tried to keep the by-laws committee from functioning. What we did was set term limits. I knew that I was out when I agreed to the term limits, but I couldn't think of another way to do it. I crashed the plane with D'Army and me in it. I wasn't piloting it alone, the board was there with me, and there were other people who could've been hurt."

Meanwhile, Maxine Smith, president of the local NAACP chapter, put out feelers to a potential replacement, outgoing NAACP national president Benjamin Hooks.

On June 13, 1992, the board voted Hooks in as president. Bailey walked out of the meeting and resigned his post on the board.

"We hoped that he would stay," Jones says, "but that we would have a board more conducive to reaching a consensus. His removal was for a very practical reason: we couldn't get any work done."

"It hurt and still hurts," Bailey says. "But it wasn't the first time I'd hurt. I resigned because the board was solidly against me. What was I to stay there for?"

That, as Bailey says, wouldn't be the "D'Army style."

Holy Ground

The making of the National Civil Rights Museum left some of its hardest workers bitter. It simply would not have happened though, had a coalition of diverse individuals not rolled up their sleeves and sweated together. One wonders how history may read differently if their sense of enlightenment and commitment to the cause had been more prevalent in the city 40 years ago. The museum symbolizes the city's progress from April 1968. More importantly, the effort of those individuals embodied that progress.

"There will be a point in time when historians look back at the museum as the bookend to the awfulness of the King tragedy," Jones says. "The museum process showed that good things could happen if people didn't just react to the same old prejudices and messages."

The museum's effect on visitors stems from that spirit. "Someone told me that standing there looking at King's room was the most powerful moment of his life," Jones says. "And that's happening every day down there."

"I'll never forget when Nelson Mandela came to tour the museum," Hyde says. "We got out on the balcony and Mandela just stopped. He said: 'I can feel the presence of Dr. King. This is holy ground.'" Beverly Robertson, executive director of the museum since 1997, admits that the 17-year-old facility needs some upgrades. She foresees structural renovation, technological updates of the exhibits, and a national marketing campaign in the museum's future. But she also wishes to see new stories told within the museum walls.       

"We haven't really told the back-story of this place," she says. "We don't talk about Mr. Bailey, who owned the Lorraine Motel. But we have to embrace all of those people who had a role in making this happen. I don't want to marginalize any of them. That's one story we've got to tell here in the museum — how it moved from the Lorraine Motel to become the National Civil Rights Museum."   M

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