The Lorraine Motel – Then and Now

Balcony at National Civil Rights Museum. Photo Credit: Bob Hazlett

Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by Bob Hazlett

National Civil Rights Museum. Photo Credit: Amie Vanderford

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

Sun Studios. Photo Credit: Commercial Appeal

Sun Studio tours give you the opportunity to see where Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded. Photo by The Commercial Appeal.

Arcade Restaurant. Photo Credit: Amie Vanderford

The Arcade, Memphis' Oldest Restaurant

National Civil Rights Museum - Sanitation Strike Exhibit. Photo Credit: Lisa Waddell Buser

I AM A MAN exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Photo by Lisa Buser.

The Lorraine Hotel got its start in 1945 when Walter Bailey purchased an existing hotel in the South Main Arts District in Downtown Memphis and named it in honor of his wife, Loree, and a popular song titled “Sweet Lorraine.” It became The Lorraine Motel when Mr. Bailey added a second floor to the hotel and gave his guests drive-up access.

No matter the name, this place was buzzing with business during the 1960s. The Lorraine Motel was one of only a few hotels that provided African Americans overnight accommodations. This upscale motel offered guests, both black and white, affordable rooms and home-cooked meals in a friendly, clean environment. Better still, with Stax recording studio located nearby, you could expect to see artists and composers such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd.

If those walls could talk, it would tell you about when Steve Cropper, guitarist for Booker T. & The MGs, wrote two songs while staying at the motel. “In the Midnight Hour” was written with Wilson Picket and released in 1966. Another was “Knock on Wood” with Eddie Floyd. Eddie is quoted as saying, “We had the melody down, but we struggled with the lyrics. Steve and I set out to write a song about superstition, but then there was a flash and a boom, that’s when I came up with “It’s like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening.”

Not only was the Lorraine Motel a center for creativity, it was soon to become ground zero for the civil rights movement in Memphis. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to support the rights of local sanitation workers. On April 3,1968 he delivered his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at the Mason Temple. The very next day he would be assassinated by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of Room 306.

In 1991 the motel was reborn into the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum sits on 4 acres and encompasses the Lorraine Motel and the neighboring rooming house where Ray fired the fatal shot. It is easy to see history unfold through the audio tour, civil rights timelines and vast amounts of news footage. You can actually board a life-size replica of the Birmingham bus and take a seat next to Rosa Parks while the driver tells you to “move to the back.”

Within walking distance of the museum is Earnestine and Hazel’s where all the Stax Records and Sun Studio gang would hang out. The walls are covered with photos of these legendary musicians. Pull up a chair and enjoy their savory soul burgers with a side of nostalgia. Across the street is Memphis’ oldest restaurant: The Arcade. Pay tribute to Elvis’ booth as you order sweet potato pancakes or some of the best pizza in town.

Dig deeper into the history of South Main Arts District and the Civil Rights Movement then come to Memphis and make some history of your own.