The Lorraine Motel is now a civil rights museum dedicated to struggle for equality.

Memphis funeral home thrust into service to prepare King’s body

On April 3, 1968, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. died, Robert Stevenson Lewis met the civil rights leader for the first time – at a stop light. 

The owner of R.S. Lewis & Sons, Memphis’ top black funeral home, Lewis offered his chauffer and finest Cadillac to King to use during his stay. 

The Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King  Jr. was killed April 4, 1968. The car on the left is a replica of the white Cadillac that R.S. Lewis had provided for King’s party during his stay in Memphis. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz, File)
Photo: Beth J. Harpaz/AP

»RELATED: Read the AJC’s full coverage of Martin Luther King’s life and death

But a little more than 24 hours later, it would be Lewis himself driving a white 1966 Cadillac Superior Royale Coach hearse with a black top to St. Joseph's Hospital to pick up King’s body to take to his funeral home. 

The bullet that felled King hit him in the chin, destroying his face. Lewis was charged with preparing and embalming the body for the trip back to Atlanta, where there would likely be a closed casket funeral. 

Instead, Robert Stevenson Lewis and his brother Clarence E. Lewis worked on King’s body for 13 hours. By the morning of April 5, a line of mourners stretched through the streets of Memphis waiting to see King’s body – in an open casket. 

An unidentified man lifts Bernice King, 5, over her father's casket in Atlanta, April 7, 1968. Her father, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain by sniper fire in Memphis, Tenn., April 4. Bernice's brothers, Martin III and Dexter, and her mother, Coretta Scott King, center, wearing hat, also view the body.
Photo: (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

»RELATED: King’s long goodbye

“He wanted to do something on behalf of Memphis, for the people of Memphis who loved Dr. King,” said Richard Flowers, who was mentored under the Lewis brothers and still works at the funeral home. “He never tried to get any accolades from it. He just wanted to do a good job and honor King.” 

The casket bearing the body of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is taken up a loading ramp and placed aboard an airliner to his hometown Atlanta, Ga., on April 5, 1968, at the airport of Memphis, Tennessee. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King's closest associate and named to replace Dr. King as head of the SCLC, stands in the doorway of the plane.
Photo: (AP Photo)

Read more about R.S. Lewis and the role his funeral home played in the last days of King’s life in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Honoring King.”

The March 21 documentary 'The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' on Channel 2 kicked off a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 and its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB RadioThe three Atlanta news sources will release comprehensive multi-platform content until April 9, the anniversary of King’s funeral. On April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the three properties will devote extensive live coverage to the memorials in Atlanta, Memphis and around the country. The project will present a living timeline in real time as it occurred on that day in 1968, right down to the time the fatal shot was fired that ended his life an hour later. The project will culminate on April 9 with coverage of the special processional in Atlanta marking the path of Dr. King’s funeral, which was watched by the world.

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