From Montgomery, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee, he had checked into countless hotels rooms. In 1963, he checked into a hotel room in Washington, D.C. went to the Lincoln Memorial and gave the world his dream. In 1964, he checked into a hotel room in Oslo, Norway to accept a prize for his message of peace and equality. In 1965, he checked into a hotel room in Montgomery, Alabama after a long, exhausting march from Selma that finally moved the Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
On Wednesday April 3, 1968 at 11:20 AM he checked into one last hotel room. It was Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, a two-story downtown hotel catering to the black traveler. He was there to complete some unfinished business. In February of the same year, garbage workers in Memphis had gone on strike, demanding a raise and protection from dangerous working conditions. Moved by their plight and the death of two men, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were fatally injured in garbage compactor accident, he agreed to help.
This was his second visit to Memphis within a week. On his previous trip, a march that he led in support of the garbage workers had turned violent and was stopped. The man known for nonviolence had to retreat because of violence in his own ranks. Determined to right this wrong, he came back to Memphis to march again in peace for the marchers, in solidarity for the striking garbage workers and redemption for his reputation as a nonviolent leader advocating for justice.
Later in the day, he left Room 306 to attend strategy meetings for the upcoming march. Weary from meetings, press conferences, and the early morning flight from Atlanta, he returned to Room 306 to rest for the night. However, before he could rest, his associate and best friend the Reverend, Ralph David Abernathy persuaded him to leave Room 306 to speak at the local Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.
That night he exclaimed:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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. So 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.”
After a this powerful address and greeting several supporters from the audience, he was relieved to finally return to Room 306 to rest before the next day creeped upon him.
On the early morning of April 4, 1968, he left Room 306 for more meetings only to return later in the afternoon to rest before attending a dinner at the home of the Revered Samuel Billy Kyles.
Meanwhile, at the boarding house across the street from the Lorraine Motel a man checks into Room B5. The man rifle in hand enters the boarding house common bathroom and opens a window with a clear sightline to room 306.
There the man from B5 waits with a rifle for the man in 306 to leave his room. And when he does, shoots him dead.
A half a century has now passed since that fatal shot was fired.
Much has changed.
Much more has remined the same.
Regardless of the triumphs and tragedies, the elections won and the elections lost, the three steps forward for equality coupled with the two steps backward, something stills ring true from that the man who spent his last night alive in Room 306:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”