On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. was assassinated as he left his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s truly one of the saddest days in U.S. history, and a landmark moment that Memphis residents wish hadn’t happened in their city.
The Grizzlies, the NBA franchise based in Memphis, recently unveiled a new uniform they will wear when they play against Chicago next January 15, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The design is drawn from the look of the old Lorraine Motel, where King was killed.
In the team’s press release announcing the design, the team stated that it “joined forces” with the National Civil Rights Museum to unveil the new jersey. They explain that the design, from the seafoam green to the font spelling out “Memphis,” all call back to the designs of the Lorraine.
To be clear: the city of Memphis has decided to honor Dr. King by creating a new jersey that celebrates the location where he was assassinated.
The fact that they worked with National Civil Rights Museum would seem to make it better, but it might do the opposite. The Museum has been criticized for being too closely connected to big business and focused on making money from this tragedy. The museum not only features the room where King spent his final moments, but also the room where James Earl Ray stayed before he shot King. When you visit the museum, you can also see Ray’s Ford Mustang, the rifle with which he killed King and the coat he wore. One of the museum’s most outspoken critics, Jacqueline Smith, has called it the “James Earl Ray Memorial.” Smith was the Lorraine’s last tenant and a former employee who, in 1990, was forcibly removed after the motel closed so that it could be turned into a museum.
In 2007, as the museum’s lease came up, its Board of Directors drew the ire of many when they looked to purchase the property from the city for $1 or gain a 50-year lease, while requesting additional funding from the state. That funding would have come in addition to the $5 million state and local governments had already contributed.
There was also the issue that many thought the museum board included too many white members. In 2007, 15 of the 32 Board members were white, and it listed 12 members as having close ties to corporations. One of those board members is Pitt Hyde, who founded AutoZone and (surprise!) is a part-owner of the Memphis Grizzlies.
A logical next question would be: How does the King family feel about all of this? The team made clear that this partnership is with the National Civil Rights Museum — and that the family was not involved.
So what, exactly, are we celebrating here?