305 | ‘Traveling on Hospitality’: Andrew Young remembers life on the road toward civil rights

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Andrew J. Young Jr. sits with other civil rights workers in a room at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, hours after their leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated on the balcony of the property in Memphis, Tennessee. In a recent interview with Long Live Lodging, Young said, because of changes related to the Rev. Dr. King’s lodging plans, he believes local police conspired with others in the killing. (Photo: Withers Museum)

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of a Long Live Lodging series looking at how the hospitality industry was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in mid-20th century America. The series is produced in commemoration of Black History Month.

Andrew Jackson Young Jr., who will turn 89 years old on March 12, has led a storied life.

He began his career in social service in the mid-1950s as a Baptist minister in Georgia. He went on to become executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a civil rights activist alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He served as a U.S. congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta. Read his biography here.

Though many refer to him as Ambassador Young, the civil rights icon is mostly revered for his campaign for social justice as he traveled alongside the Rev. Dr. King to spread the gospel of racial equality.

What’s not often talked or written about is how lodging businesses enabled Young and other civil rights workers to travel throughout a segregated South.

In many cases, he said, they depended on the kindness of strangers who opened their homes for a night and a meal. At other times, they were able to find a motel that welcomed guests of all colors. Often, these lodging establishments were Black-owned.

“One of the first hotels I remember going to had no sheet rock on the wall. It had a bed and a wash pan. It looked like something out of a Western movie, very rough. But I was tired, so I slept well.

“This was a black owned, black-operated rooming house.

“That was typical of our stays in the early days. For the most part, we didn’t stay in professional lodging because there was none. But there was almost an unwritten rule that everybody who had a home had a guest room that they made available for anybody passing through.

“During the civil rights movement, there were no hotels in these small Southern towns where you could stay, but everybody, if they had an extra bed or a couch, you were welcomed.

“I slept on the floor in sleeping bags. I remember a couple of very hard iron army beds, with little thin mattresses on them.”

NIGHT MARCH: St. Augustine, Florida, honors civil rights leader Andrew Young, who in June 1964 was beaten by members of a white mob when he led the Night March through the city to quell riots as Congress debated the Civil Rights Act. The city named the path Andrew Young Crossing in recognition of its place in the Civil Rights Movement.

Black dignitaries’ favorite way station in Selma, Alabama, was the home of Amelia Boynton, a civil rights activist herself. She hosted such luminaries as the Rev. Dr. King, George Washington Carver and Langston Hughes, along with Young and others.

Boynton was an outspoken participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She was a key organizer of the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery. In the first demonstration on March 7, Alabama State Troopers attacked Boynton and others, including John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams, with tear gas, whips and Billy clubs as the marchers attempted to cross the William Pettus Bridge. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. It prohibited discrimination in public places and triggered the integration of public schools. It also upheld equal protection under the law.

In 1968, Johnson signed follow-up civil rights legislation also known as the Fair Housing Act. He signed that law, which included anti-riot legislation, one week after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Rev. Dr. King had stayed at The Lorraine Motel many times as he led the Civil Rights Movement.

Other Black-owned accommodations the figured in the Civil Rights Movement are the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery.

BASE OF OPERATIONS: Police surveillance files include this 1963 photo of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, outside the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama. The Rev. Dr. King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including its executive director Andrew Young, set up office at the motel for two months that year to strategize their campaign for civil rights. (Photo: Birmingham Public Library)

The A.G. Gaston Motel was a gathering site for civil rights activists who would regularly meet and strategize their next moves. Owner was Arthur George Gaston, an entrepreneur and businessman. He opened the property in 1954. It had 29 rooms, a coffee shop and restaurant.

Young was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by the Rev. Dr. King. The SCLC joined forces with other like-minded organizations on the road to civil rights.

The SCLC set up camp in Room 30 at the A.G. Gaston Motel in April and May 1963 when they came up with Project C, a movement that boycotted retailers in Birmingham and led lunch-counter sit-ins. The Rev. Dr. King and the SCLC also organized protest marches, one of which began at the motel.

On May 10, 1963, the SCLC and Birmingham civil rights leaders agreed to a truce as white business owners and civil leaders promised to end segregation in local establishments and hire Black employees. The next day a bomb was set off under Room 30. A few people were slightly injured. It was then that Young, the Rev. Dr. King and others with the SCLC ended their stay at the A.G. Gaston.

The National Park Services reports the A.G. Gaston Motel is jointly owned by the National Park Service and the City of Birmingham and is a part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument.

Young said he remembers staying overnight only once at the Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery.

EMPTY ROOMS: The Ben Moore Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama, was where Black civil rights leaders strategized the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King lived near the hotel when he was a minister of a church in Montgomery. He got his hair cut at the Malden Brothers Barber Shop located in the basement of the building.

Southern Cooking

“Everywhere we went in the civil rights movement we were invited by somebody in the community and they knew where it was best to stay, but most of them didn’t want Martin Luther King or me to stay in a hotel. For the most part, there was somebody that had said you go home with them.”

One of Young’s favorite memories of traveling the road to civil rights was the food.

“Southern cooks and Southern hospitality, they’d be fixing food for weeks to feed the whole civil rights movement.

“The student movement didn’t have any money and they were basically traveling on hospitality. But people were so glad to have these young people of courage. They were black and white, male and female. That was a phenomenon in the ’60s. That was new to the South. Nobody quite knew how to deal with it.”

LISTEN: LLL BLACK HISTORY SERIES: Check out Long Live Lodging’s first installment of its series in commemoration of Black History Month. Episode 304 reports on Choice Hotels International’s historic multi-unit franchise agreement with a Black developer.

Private homes, Black-owned bed and breakfasts and motels did not have to advertise because awareness of their accommodations, no matter how simple, traveled by word of mouth.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that the Rev. Dr. King was killed while he was a motel.

DR. KING SHOT: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lies on the second-story of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, gravely wounded by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. Andrew Young, left, and other civil rights leaders point to where the shot came from. (Photo: Getty Images)

In an upcoming report, we’ll go deeper into the Lorraine Motel and its place in Civil Rights history, but Young recalled the evening of April 4, 1968, when the Rev. Dr. King stepped out of his motel room into the cool of a Memphis early evening.

The group from the SCLC was in Memphis to support the sanitation strike when 13,000 Black workers walked off the job after two garbage collectors were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck.

The day before, the Rev. Dr. King spoke at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple where he famously told the crowd that he’d been to the mountaintop. He urged the people to stay together and show solidarity for the sanitation workers and demand that community leaders and elected officials uphold federal Civil Rights laws and to fight for economic justice. He advised them to demonstrate their spending power by boycotting foods produced by Memphis manufacturers and supporting Black-owned businesses.

He talked about receiving threats when he arrived in Memphis.

WATCH: TRAVELING WITH CAMERA: Photojournalist Joseph Louw, who was covering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for a documentary, took the photo of the Rev. Dr. King after hearing the shot from inside his room at the motel. Watch the video in which Louw, a native of South Africa, tells his story.

Young said he, the Rev. Dr. King and the others weren’t strangers to the Lorraine Motel. It was Black-owned and they had stayed there several times before. So often, in fact, that the Rev. Dr. King had a favorite room.

But that’s not the room he got on April 4.

Young believes the Memphis police “set up” the Rev. Dr. King to be killed.

“When he first went to Memphis with the garbage workers, they got him a room downtown at the Peabody,” Young said.

The Rev. Dr. King took part in a peaceful march but the opposition disrupted the event.

“I think the police paid to have it disrupted,” Young said. “Then the newspapers came out and accused him of running and hiding in a big white hotel.

“So when he came back, he made arrangements in the Lorraine Motel. Now the room that he was given and that he liked was a downstairs room in the corner. It was the largest room. It had two double beds and a table, a kitchenette, and that was a room he liked. But the Memphis police sent word that they could protect him better if he was upstairs.

“Well, that was not true. They could not have shot him if he’d been in that room down there. But the Memphis police had some involvement in his assassination. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I know that that was true.

“They criticized him for staying in the downtown hotel, which was safer. And then when he stayed in the Lorraine Motel, which was the black-owned motel, they moved him out of the corner room and put him up on the balcony where he was shot.”

James Earl Ray, the convicted triggerman, killed the Rev. Dr. King “at exactly” 6 p.m. Young and the others returned to the motel from the hospital at 8 p.m. and saw city workers cutting down the bushes from the shooting site across the street.

“They had cut the bushes down and they had swept that area clean. And we went over and we confronted the city workers and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And they said, ‘The police ordered us to cut this down.’ And so there’s at least documented evidence that the police interfered with a crime scene.”

Young and the rest of the team stayed at the Lorraine Motel that night. Young said knew the Rev. Dr. King was not afraid to die. For that reason, Young slept soundly despite the traumatic turn of events that left the Civil Rights Movement without its one-of-a-kind leader and so much left to accomplish.

“At the time, I almost wish that they’d shot both of us. My initial reaction was: ‘You can’t go to heaven and leave us in hell.’”

Young went on to serve in Congress from 1973-78; as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter from 1977-79. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981. He was mayor of Atlanta from 1982 to 1990.

LIKE FAMILY: Andrew Young is with Davonne Reaves and her son Jamir in 2019 in Atlanta. Reaves met Young more than a decade ago when volunteering for the Trumpet Awards. She was assigned to escort Young and his wife, Carolyn. Today, Reaves and Jamir are like family to the Youngs. Reaves is founder and managing principal of The Vonne Group, a hospitality consulting company. She is a member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants and received its 2020 Lori Raleigh Award for Excellence in Hospitality Consulting. Reaves introduced Judy Maxwell, editorial director at Long Live Lodging, to Young and helped make the interview for this report possible. She also connected Long Live Lodging to Kathleen Bertrand, a former executive leader with the Atlanta Convention & Visitor Bureau featured in Episode 309, which will launch on Feb. 22.

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FEATURING
  • Davonne Reaves

    Founder/Hospitality Strategist

    The Vonne Group

    LinkedIn Profile
  • Andrew Young Jr.

    Civil rights activist

    Former congressman, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and mayor of Atlanta

    LinkedIn Profile
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