On the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington, a visit to three memorials: The Lincoln, the Audubon and the Lorraine Motel
‘It’s like, What happened? Where did Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s messages go?’
Nothing prepares you for the moment the curtains are pulled back and you’re on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum. Nothing can prepare you for looking into the bathroom from where the shot was fired.
Nothing prepares you for standing alone on the second floor of The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center — or, as it was formerly known, the Audubon Ballroom. It’s one thing to stand where history took place. It’s far heavier to breathe — in two different states, on consecutive days — the air that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X each took in as his last.
My journey to locate the souls of King and Malcolm X was an emotional one — the quest coincides with the 55th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
It’s a sweltering late August day in Washington, D.C. Despite the forecast of rain, thousands, if not more, have flocked to the Lincoln Memorial. It’s the most visited presidential monument in the United States — it’s also the most visited memorial or monument of any kind here. Some want selfies with America’s 16th president. Some genuinely want to take in the moment, standing in one place for minutes at a time without talking or recording with their phone.
A historic landmark in an equally historic city, there’s another landmark plot mere feet away. Where King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, there’s an engraved slab of concrete. It’s the theme that binds my trip, aside from trains, plains and automobiles: standing in the footsteps of giants.
The Lincoln Memorial is also the place, as one tourist puts it, “where Jenny ran across the pond in Forrest Gump.” Technically, he’s not wrong. But it’s difficult to gauge, on the scene with a culturally and demographically diverse crowd, who truly understands the magnitude of the place. The “Dream” speech, in the 50 years since King’s death, has been effectively whitewashed. He delivered an earlier rendition of the sermon only two months beforehand at the Detroit Walk to Freedom, organized by the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha Franklin’s dad).
That was the largest civil rights demonstration in history, with a reported 100,000 marchers — until the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech bookended a spring and summer that saw black America reel from the history-altering assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, where King gave the eulogy.
More than 200,000 men and women took to D.C.’s streets, ending up on the National Mall before the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Celebrities such as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Jackie Robinson, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Bill Russell, James Baldwin, Lena Horne, Marlon Brando and Diahann Carroll stood alongside everyday folk. The “Dream” was far more than the sound bites of racial harmony to which it’s been effectively rendered. The true message of the speech is that America was failing spectacularly to live up to its promise of equality for all.
“It sent a message to the world,” said Desiree Favre, a D.C. resident for more than 30 years. She was visiting the Lincoln Memorial with her father. “The number of people that came out was a clear message to the world that this wasn’t going to be tolerated any longer.”
Although King walked away with the historic MVP honors, the massive undertaking was organized by a group of leaders dubbed the “Big Six”: A. Philip Randolph, Whitney M. Young Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis and King. Ebony called the march a “force of nature … a call to national conscience” that “moved men and women as they had never been moved before.”
The size of the march was lauded more than the why of the march, and not everyone was impressed. In New York, Malcolm X stewed over what he dubbed the “Farce on Washington.” He wasn’t opposed to the march itself, believing, as he put it in his autobiography, nothing had united black people around radio stations across the North and Jim Crow South in such a sweeping manner since the days of the “Brown Bomber,” aka Joe Louis. Malcolm X, though, was vehemently opposed to the watering-down of the gathering — the Kennedy White House “approved,” “endorsed” and “welcomed” the march, and financially supportive white institutions were allowed to sell the march’s true intentions up the river. This integration turned a march into a picnic, in Malcolm X’s eyes. A circus even. Why would he want inclusion in a society that was destructive of women and men of his hue?
That’s what I thought of standing in that crater of history, near where King stood. That’s what looking out over the Reflecting Pool and toward the Washington Monument calls for. In the fight for equality in the ’60s, there were multiple routes to the same end goal. King and Malcolm X were two forces of nature. They met only once, in March 1964, and by the end of their lives their ideologies had flipped in many ways. Even before his split with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was reaching out to King in hopes of establishing a partnership. “In the last years of their lives, they were starting to move toward one another,” said author and historian David Howard-Pitney. “While Malcolm [was] moderating from his earlier position, King [was] becoming more militant.”
Rain begins to fall, making a humid day in D.C. even more so. I’m thinking of where the route goes next.
This isn’t the Audubon Ballroom as it was on Feb. 21, 1965, when members of the Nation of Islam gunned down its former national representative. It’s the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. Sandwiched between a Chase Bank and Dallas BBQ, the space is most inconspicuous. Ironic, given its namesake was anything but in the short 39 years he lived. There’s a combustion of emotions upon entering 3940 Broadway in New York City’s Washington Heights. Aside from a young lady sitting in the lobby, there’s no one around.
A life-size statue of Malcolm X stands near the trio of steps. As I walk into what used to be the Audubon, the moment makes me almost instantly emotional. The room has been renovated, but its energy is eternal. Again, there’s no one around. I’m not trespassing, as the facility is open to the public, but at that moment, it’s just myself with the spirit of Malcolm X as my tour guide. Rows of seats sit in front of a podium. The podium is where it went down. The intensity of the room is overpowering.
“Anything I do today, I regard as urgent,” Malcolm X wrote in the gripping final chapter of his autobiography. “No man is given but so much time to accomplish his life’s work.” Some 20 feet away from the podium is a large poster of this quote. It’s as if it’s the soundtrack of the room. “I am only facing the facts when I know that any moment of the day, or any night, could bring me death.”
Standing at that podium, I close my eyes and visualize Malcolm X standing there. He sees the shooters walking toward him. Death isn’t around the corner. It’s at his doorstep — with his wife and children nearby. He’d been hesitant to give the speech at the Audubon that day. I wonder what his final thoughts were. And wondered if one even has final thoughts in a situation like that.
Eyes still closed, as the commotion of present-day Harlem plays out on the same streets Malcolm X once called his home base, I see the fire from the gun. See bullets pierce Malcolm X’s body. See him lying on the same ground I stand on as his life exits his body. I see Betty Shabazz, overtaken by fear and grief, telling him to cling on to whatever bit of life he has in him. I feel what must have been her thoughts about raising six children by herself. In this space, murals of Malcolm X take the place of wallpaper. He lives on here.
So much had changed in Malcolm X, in America, really, in the less than two years since the March on Washington. The country lived on through the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. And the most polarizing athlete in the country was Muhammad Ali. In this decade, blood was the ultimate currency. It was a decade in which Malcolm X would no longer allow black America to live in spiritual fear, even if it meant he had to die for that spiritual freedom.
Walking back down the steps, the young lady who had been in the lobby was no longer there. Was she there to begin with? Or is my mind playing tricks on me? Leaving the former Audubon Ballroom, I realize these are the same doors Malcolm X’s body was rushed out through. Malcolm X loved Harlem, and it loved him back. But like so many other black men in the history of this country, the streets that adored him are the same streets he called, for the very last time, home.
At the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, I sit on a replica bus across from a seated statue of Rosa Parks. Just a few feet away you can sit at a lunch counter as clips of black men and women are assaulted for having the gall to look Jim Crow in the eye. You can even walk through Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, a turning point in the civil rights movement that took place less than three weeks after Malcolm X’s assassination. “If white people realize what the alternative is,” Malcolm X told Coretta Scott King in February 1965 while King sat in jail, “maybe they’ll be more willing to hear Dr. King.”
Shortly past the Black Panthers exhibit is the final frontier. The point of no return. King is in town to support the Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers who are fighting for better wages. King is a different man from the one who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial five years before. He’s preaching economic freedom while riding out for his people. And, much like Ali, he doesn’t bite his tongue about the hypocrisy of the Vietnam War. Death isn’t a stalker at this point. It’s a house host. King is marked for death.
Just like that, you’re there. At the museum, the day is painted out in detail. King’s last day, thankfully, was spent in high spirits. Joking with his closest confidants. They even had a pillow fight. He spoke to his parents. Standing on the balcony outside of Room 306, he asks musician Ben Branch to play his favorite hymn, “Precious Lord.”
At a boarding house on Mulberry Street, a gunman sets up in a bathroom with a line of sight to King. It doesn’t hit me until I’m visiting the boarding house, part of the museum tour, and looking through the same window. A shot rings. Back at the Lorraine, curtains open and the balcony — that balcony — is on the other side of a pane of glass. I’m looking at the exact spot where the soul of black America took a bullet. The photos of King standing on the balcony. The photos of him on his back in a pool of blood. They all race. This is it right there.
You always hear the room has been preserved. But then you see it. A used milk carton sits on a dresser. A newspaper on the bed. Cigarette butts in the ashtray. King wrote his own eulogy on Feb. 4 — two months to the day he’d be taken away. The experience is too much for many on the tour. Sniffles give way to tears. Especially from those who experienced the tragedy.
“He was here,” said Charles, 78. A Memphis native, he’s at the museum with his wife, Ruth, and their daughter and son-in-law. It’s their first time visiting the museum. “Now we’re here.”
“It was just … surreal,” said Ruth, 79. “I remember I was living on Congress [Parkway in Chicago] … the chaos and all that was going on after [the news was] found out. … I was on the west side, and that’s where a lot of stuff had burned up. It was awful … just awful.”
As our line somberly proceeds to the museum’s exit, it’s King’s voice that rings out one last time. “And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!” The fine lines from his “Mountaintop” speech bellow from an adjacent room. Talk about timing. Talk about an emotional climax at the absolute perfect moment. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
The balcony disappears. But King’s voice doesn’t.
It wasn’t even five years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that both Malcolm X and King lost their lives. “It’s sobering,” said Desiree Favre as she and her father head back to their car ahead of the thunderstorm. “Maybe it … sent a message to anyone who … came up behind them [who] continued to push the message. They may have become fearful. That may be the intent: to squash those leaders. We had a few after them, but after a while it just dropped off. Everybody now is about getting the money, getting the position. They killed [leaders] off the other way — with money.”
Kids and their parents sprint by me, eagerly waiting to see the commander in chief responsible for seeing the land of the free and home of the brave through its only official civil war. More take pictures by the place where he gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.
“[The 55th anniversary] is incredible. But I also wonder, why did we ease up?” said Favre. And then her rhetorical questions won’t let up. “How people are becoming more separate? How do we still have these groups that are spitting hate? It’s like, What happened? Where did [King and Malcolm X’s] message go?”