Last week the New Zealand Herald published my article about the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Junior. Click here to link to the piece that details my 2016 visit to the site of King’s assassination, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. If you’re planning a trip to the States and Memphis is somehow missing from your itinerary, amend that now. Memphis is bucket-list worthy for so many reasons, but I’d argue none more-so than seeing the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the frozen-in-time shell of the Lorraine Motel.
The place is so inspiring as to be a spiritual experience, something I also write about in the article. The undoubted emotional highlight is seeing the two rooms in the motel that King and his people slept in on April 3rd, 1968, the night before he was killed and the same night he delivered the second most famous speech of his life (after I Have A Dream), the Mountaintop speech.
As I explain in the Herald article, living in New Zealand, for some it may be hard to grasp the magnitude of just how important a figure Martin Luther King was and still is. Not to mention what the oppression of segregation and institutionalised racism really felt like during his lifetime. King’s reason for visiting Memphis 50 years ago is a vital snapshot. He was there in solidarity with black sanitation workers who were striking over appalling working conditions and inferior pay to white employees who were doing the same job.
It’s jaw-dropping hearing it now, but if weather events like snowstorms were too harsh for people to safely get to work, white sanitation workers in Memphis would be able to stay at home on full pay. As for black employees, they’d have to risk their lives if they wanted that pay cheque.
To really get a sense of what King was like and just how it felt to take part in things like sit-ins in the segrated south, I visited Commodores bassist Ronald LaPread in the Auckland home he’s shared with his wife since moving to New Zealand in the mid-80s. From my NZ Herald article:
Whether it’s memories of touring the world with the Jackson 5, meeting Marvin Gaye for the first time, being in a studio with Stevie Wonder, flying to Zaire to watch the Rumble In The Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman or playing tennis with Arthur Ashe at Berry Gordy’s house, LaPread is not a man short of a yarn.
In short, it’s not hyperbole to say LaPread is one of the most gripping storytellers I’ve ever met. It was an honour, as it always is, to hear him retell some of the stories that mean the most to him. In the article you’ll read how it was for a teenaged LaPread – born and bred in Tuskegee, Alabama – to meet King, plus the courage it took to take part in a weekly sit-in at a whites-only church in Alabama.
In a conversation that encompassed everything from LaPread’s own heritage (he’s the great-grandson of a former slave) to how white racists in the South were wary of the “educated blacks” emanating from Tuskegee’s esteemed black college – “don’t play with them, they’re smart!” – our interview also turned to the topic of one the more despicable figures in American 20th Century history, George Wallace.
Not featured in my Herald article but included here, LaPread described Wallace as “the meanest governor ever as far as racists were in Alabama”. Wallace was – to put it mildly – a prominent opponent of King’s. Wallace had used his 1963 inauguration to proclaim, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”, and did everything in his power to block blacks from attending the University Of Alabama. His fortunes changed, however, when an assassination attempt in 1972 left him paralysed from the waist down.
LaPread: “When Wallace got shot in his back and he couldn’t walk, the people who took care of him until he died were black. Old black women. The same women that he wouldn’t let ride and sit down on the bus, the same women that he made go around to the back of the building to get something to eat, the same people that he told, ‘You can’t eat in this café,’ or ‘You can’t walk down this street’, or ‘You can’t drink this water, this is white water’. But until he died, black people took care of him”.
I asked LaPread if Wallace ever had an epiphany, realising the error of his ways:
“If he didn’t, his ass is in Hell right now!”
With that LaPread gave one of the big, infectious, snickering laughs I’ve heard countless times from him since we first became friends almost 20 years ago.
For LaPread, the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968 remains one of the three saddest days of his life alongside the deaths of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the loss of his first wife, Kathy, to cancer in 1977. New Zealand has given him a life far removed from his times with A-list pals and a band whose number one hits and platinum records once had them in a big enough league to be nicknamed “the black Beatles”. But like the peace he saw in King, LaPread found his own personal peace in Aotearoa.
Huge thanks to Ronald LaPread. A friend, a great storyteller and one almighty bass player. Here’s a Commodores song that feels especially relevant for this anniversary. From 1980, this is Heroes:
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” – Martin Luther King Junior.