I'll never forget that chill. It ran straight up my spine and felt as tangible as any spiritual experience I've had. Funnily enough, motels don't normally do that to you, but the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee never was a typical place to lay your head.

Once upon a time it was best known for being where the elite of the black entertainment industry visiting Memphis would stay. Everyone from Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding. Then one day its fame turned to infamy and its place in history was forever altered. The date was April 4th, 1968.

Fifty years since Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, the shell of the building remains a time capsule.

Two 1960s cars are parked beneath the rooms 306 and 307 where King and his people slept the final night of his life. That final night – April 3rd, 1968 – was when the 39-year old preacher who'd been the driving force of the Civil Rights Movement delivered the immortal "Mountaintop" speech.


From the pulpit of Memphis's Mason Temple, it was clear King knew a long life was not to be his: "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain.

"And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

"And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

Within 24-hours he was dead. Fast-forward to the present day and the Lorraine Motel is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Devastating and inspiring in equal measure, rooms 306 and 307 are the only parts of the motel's interior to have been kept as they were in 1968, even down to the partially made bed and the left cups of coffee. Standing at what felt like the intersection of good and evil, I had both chills and tears.

The day before he was assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Picture / file
The day before he was assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Picture / file

Living in New Zealand, it can be hard to grasp the magnitude of America's complicated race relations and just how important a figure Martin Luther King was. One New Zealand resident who knew firsthand what the American South was like during the Civil Rights era is Commodores' bassist Ronald LaPread.

Before teaming up with a certain Lionel Richie and joining the band who'd become one of Motown's biggest acts of the 70s and 80s, LaPread was a young man growing up in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Speaking on the eve of the 50th anniversary of King's death, I visited LaPread in the Auckland home he's shared with his New Zealand wife since leaving the Commodores in the mid-80s.


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.

Not all of those yarns are showbiz-related either, like the time a teenage LaPread arrived home to find a gathering crowd and people asking who he was.

With LaPread's neighbour a senior player in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, high-profile visitors were not out of the ordinary. This time though, suggesting the guest was merely "high profile" doesn't quite do it justice:

"As I passed by my neighbour's house there were a lot of extra people standing in the yard who were questioning me, you know, 'Where you goin'? Who are you? Whatcha' do?'

I said, 'Hey man, I'm the neighbour! I live next door. That's my house right there'. The next morning my neighbour came out and told me the Reverend Martin Luther King was at his house all night. And I said, 'Wow! Ya' jivin' me man, you're joking'".

Ronald LaPread, a member of the The Commodores, who recalls his encounter with Martin Luther King Jn. Picture / file
Ronald LaPread, a member of the The Commodores, who recalls his encounter with Martin Luther King Jn. Picture / file

Pausing for effect, LaPread then uttered, "And then I met him".

Turns out King was still at the property and LaPread can recall the "aura" and "peacefulness" that he immediately felt, flying in the face of the fact that this was a man for whom death threats were a near constant.

"He took the Gandhi approach of, 'We just sit-in, don't be violent, just sit there, stay there and be persistent'", says LaPread.

Having spoken with King, LaPread was inspired to take part in one of those sit-ins:

"There was a church in my town on South Main Street", explains LaPread, "one of the biggest, nicest churches you would ever want to see. They would not allow blacks in there. Then one day, we staged a sit-in at the church on Sunday. We got dressed, we went to the church and we sat down and they told us we couldn't be there. And we sat there, and we sat there, and we sat there.

"They went and got police with guns and water cannons and all of that. I mean the things that were happening, people in New Zealand wouldn't treat dogs like that. And we were sitting in a church! A lot of us got wet by water, bitten by dogs, beaten by batons, but next Sunday, we went back and sat down at the church again".

All of which is proof that it wasn't just the bravery of King that was so apparent, but the bravery he inspired in millions of other blacks, especially the young.

LaPread briefly smiles as he remembers the church sit-in, saying, "I tried not to sit on the outside! I wanted to be in the middle of the pile! Because they would hit you, they would beat you, they would hurt you".

Fifty years on, LaPread still has fears equality for the races in his home country may never eventuate. He's also critical of a President whose "Make America Great Again" rhetoric implies a goal of a pre-Civil Rights era reality for whites.

LaPread's worry may be justified, but the very existence of the Lorraine Motel as its nation's National Civil Rights Museum suggests to me America's path to the promised land may be more two steps forward, one step back. If chills and tears are the result for a visiting Kiwi, I can only pray there's something similar for Americans too. I hope so.

"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope" – Martin Luther King Junior.

Tim Roxborogh is the host of Newstalk ZB's The Two.