John Carlson: Two Men’s Memphis Fates

This wreath marks where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Photo by Nancy Carlson.This wreath marks where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Photo by Nancy Carlson.

By John Carlson—

To visit the city of Memphis is to come under the sway of two remarkable, and remarkably different, men.

One is the late Elvis Presley. The other is the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Elvis lived in Memphis in his mansion named Graceland, an aging but still beautiful dwelling located on an impressively sculpted estate. It’s a place anyone would want to visit.

As for Rev. King, I don’t know where he lived. But he died in Memphis outside room 306 on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It’s a nondescript place for a world-changing event, but in the split second it takes a bullet to strike a man down, it was transformed into a shrine of the American civil rights movement, a place of pilgrimage.

Not far from Graceland sits Elvis’s jet airliner, a customized Convair 880 christened “Lisa Marie” in honor of the rocker’s daughter. Inside the adjacent museum,  Elvis’s fabulous collection of vehicles will make any motor-head gasp with appreciation. Besides his boats and motorcycles, it includes his Cadillacs, Stutzes, a Rolls-Royce, an MG, a Ferrari and more.

There are also vehicles inside the Lorraine Motel, which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. These vehicles possess a gasp factor, too, but for different reasons. There’s the Montgomery, AL, bus in which Rosa Parks defied its driver’s order to move to free her seat for a white passenger. There’s the burned out hulk of a Greyhound bus that was filled with freedom riders when it was set upon by an angry mob determined to stop them. There’s also a garbage truck – old, soiled, decrepit – the kind Memphis sanitation workers were using back in 1968 when King came to support their strike for better pay and working conditions.

Both men were famous, of course. While I can’t say I became a music fan until the Beatles flew over here from England, I knew that Elvis was something very special, judging by the reaction to him of folks just a bit older than I.

Soon enough I became aware that Rev. King was also very special, both from the images of him leading his peacefully protesting marchers into maelstroms of white opposition, and also in the reaction of another man, one I dearly loved.

A Navy combat veteran of World War ll, at 19 Gordy Carlson had been wounded at Okinawa, come home to earn advanced degrees in math and chemistry on the GI Bill, and launched a successful career at General Motors. He’d never voted for a Democrat, and never would. He also had what you might describe as an extremely limited tolerance for crap, regardless of what form it presented itself.

We were watching the news on a black-and-white TV one evening when coverage of a civil rights march came on, ending as they so often did in a montage of swinging nightsticks, growling K-9’s and blasts of water from weaponized firehoses. Wrapping up the footage this time, an overwhelmed Black kid – she was just a schoolgirl, really  – looked into the camera and tearfully promised, “I would die for my freedom!”

Dad, who hadn’t been much older than her when he promised to die for our freedom, watched her from his easy chair, his hackles rising. “That’s just not right,” he finally declared of what she’d been through, before stewing in silence. And that was it. He wasn’t one to go on about things. But from him, a staunch American patriot if there ever was one, it was an indictment of a flaw in the country for which he had shed his blood, one that I never forgot.

It spoke to the power of Rev. King’s message and persona.

Both Elvis and Rev. King died way too young, the singer at 42, the civil rights activist at just 39. Like it or not, you could chalk up the former’s death to rock ‘n’ roll excesses that made his weight balloon until he looked like a parody of that handsome, guitar-strumming kid whose hip-shaking music had driven his fans nuts.

Rev. King? In the end, you had to chalk up his death to courage, standing up to the seething hatred he defied from racists while leading his people to the better lives they sought.

The fact both men died when they did also says all you need to know about the era in which they lived.

For Elvis it was 1977, well into a time when our rock ‘n’ roll heroes had begun departing this earth with numbing regularity. As with stars like Buddy Holly, the outpouring of grief at his passing left no doubt about how much he was loved, and the empty space it would leave in his fans’ lives.

Rev. King? Sometimes I think of people my age as The Assassination Generation. Between President John F. Kennedy’s killing in November of 1963, Rev. King’s killing in April of 1968, and JFK’s brother Robert’s killing in June of 1968, they seemed to come with sickening frequency to us school kids.

If we didn’t exactly become inured to it back then, I think we came dangerously close. But despite their losses, the fact is we were fortunate that both Elvis and Rev. King left so much of themselves behind.

“Don’t Be Cruel,” “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto” and a hundred more songs were there to provide a measure of relief for any Elvis mourner who owned a record player.

And Rev. King? He left us with memories in the form of his words, powerfully preaching love and non-violence.

His unforgettable “I Have A Dream” speech is a perfect example. Every bit the equal of any historical American address, it was delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And of course, there was Rev. King’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, delivered on April 3, 1968 before those striking sanitation workers. Proud and unbowed, he promised, “We as a people will get to the Promised Land,” though he eerily acknowledged he might not make it there himself.

He was killed the next day.

Tell you what, Elvis remains a legend, and for good reason. But when I hear Rev. King’s words, they always make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on every Friday.