By Raka Nandi
Museum Collection Manager & Registrar
One of the unique collections housed at the National Civil Rights Museum is the Evidence Collection, related to the trial of Martin Luther King’s assassin James Earl Ray. Among the 1,760 items in this collection is the Lorraine Motel guest book from 1968. In this book, Walter Bailey, the proprietor of the establishment, made note of all the guests who rented rooms at the Lorraine Motel.
Measuring approximately 12” x 7”, the Lorraine Motel guest book is a slim, hard-backed book, the type you might find even today at your local business supply store. Though the guest book’s appearance may be humble, its place in history makes it a treasured artifact.
When one opens the book, each page marks a day in the life of the motel, neat rows demarcate room numbers and the names of their occupants in a cursive handwriting. With great consistency, the left column of each page notes the rooms in the 200s, and the right column, those in the 300s, better known as the balcony level. After flipping through seemingly non-descript entries, the reader then turns to the fateful day of April 4, the date of Martin Luther King’s assassination. That single page of the guest book marks the presence of prominent civil rights activists such as Reverend Kyles, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson (Dr. King was never listed for security reasons). It also records the presence of two other noteworthy guests staying at the motel: Dr. James Laue, the occupant of room 308, who would come out into the balcony of the Lorraine Motel upon hearing the gunshot and find Dr. King bleeding on the ground, and Joseph Louw, in room 309, the South African press photographer on assignment in Memphis, who would grab his camera and begin taking photos of Dr. King and the ensuing chaos. The following day, Louw’s photos would be on the front page of newspapers all around the world, announcing the death of Dr. King.
The Lorraine guest book has very few entries in the subsequent days. On April 5 only a handful of guests remained at the motel. As the Memphis police and Federal Bureau of Investigation began to examine the crime scene, the motel occupants were asked by authorities to vacate their rooms, or did so on their own volition. In the following months, Mr. Bailey would grapple with a number of changes both in his professional and personal life. The passing of his wife, Loree Bailey (who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the moments after Dr. King’s assassination), and the climate of gloom that would pervade downtown Memphis after King’s death, would adversely affect his motel business. Bailey would never again rent Room 306 out to motel guests. After the investigators and detectives had gathered their information, Bailey would enclose Room 306, making it a shrine of sorts to the memory of the slain civil rights leader.
The pages of the Lorraine guestbook have fewer names of guests in the fall and winter of 1968. In the years that followed, Walter Bailey would keep other guest books and while the entries in those guest books would also be noted in his neat, cursive script, the books themselves would be inexpensive three ring spiral notebooks, the type a student may use in school. The entries in these spiral notebooks would be sparse and include notes about leaking faucets, and other repairs needed in the motel’s rooms, a testament to the deteriorating conditions of the Lorraine in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, Walter Bailey filed for bankruptcy, and closed the motel.
The 1968 Lorraine Motel guestbook provides a unique glimpse into the past on that tragic April day. Through these and other artifacts, the Museum hopes to preserve the memory of Dr. King and the civil rights movement and encourage visitors to reflect upon the nation’s troubled past.
In 2018, the Lorraine guest book was placed on display as part of the yearlong MLK50 A Legacy Remembered