Walter Bailey, the original owner of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, left Room 306 vacant after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on its balcony on April 4, 1968. Now preserved at the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of the social justice leader's final moments is both a beacon and a reminder. It speaks to its visitors, asking them to remember.
Near the vintage cars underneath the commemorative wreath that adorns the balcony where King lingered before an assassin's bullet struck him, I stood silently and reflected on my first trip there five years ago.
That spiritual experience is one I've had at George Floyd Square, too — particularly on a visit Friday morning just hours after city officials had commenced the predawn dismantling of a place that's become a refuge. It's appropriate and necessary to question Mayor Jacob Frey's commitment to opening the intersection while preserving the site and its symbolism as a "phased reconnection" unfolds because Thursday's act follows the playbook in a country that loves to move on when race is involved.
Per the Oklahoman, 83% of local respondents said they had not learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre — orchestrated by a white mob that killed up to 300 Black residents in 1921 — during their time in school. The system itself had erased the destruction of "Black Wall Street" and its victims.
"I have lived through the massacre every day," Viola Ford Fletcher, a Black Wall Street survivor, testified during a congressional hearing last month. "Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."
The changes at George Floyd Square also threaten to, over time, minimize the memory of his murder and the promises around systemic racism and poverty it generated. Minnesotans have historically placed the most violent displays of their racism in the attic, surprising their descendants when they uncover the veiled shame of their forefathers years later.
People of color, however, know the blood in Minnesota's soil is often buried, paved over or concealed at our expense.
The "Hanging Monument" marked the killing of 38 Native Americans in Mankato in 1862. While members of the local Indigenous community challenged its presence over concerns it celebrated the largest mass execution in American history, Mankato officials removed the monument in 1971 only because they were concerned about its impact on the city's reputation. In Duluth, white residents only whispered about the lynchings of three Black circus workers in 1920 until a movement led to the creation of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial downtown in 2003. In the Twin Cities, you can drive east and west on Interstate 94 without ever seeing a prominent physical marking about the highway's destruction of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. And how many people in this state know their homes sit on land swindled from Dakota or Ojibwe people?
That's why the energy around George Floyd Square is significant.
"I don't know if Minnesota wants to erase its sins," a resident who lived blocks from 38th and Chicago before a recent move told me. "I think it wants to, needs to pretend they don't exist."
At George Floyd Square on Friday morning, the emotions surrounding the removal of longstanding components of the memorial — countered by the space's protectors who used cars and other barriers to interrupt the city's action — festered.
People there said they knew Winston Smith, whom local authorities shot and killed in Uptown on Thursday, fueling more tension in the streets. Law enforcement officials involved did not wear bodycams. One emotional resident said the city wants to open George Floyd Square to "protect white assets." Another said visitors should approach the site with more respect. Others asked aloud for clarity on the meaning of justice. A woman who lives in the area advised a "patient and polite" approach to one another. Then, another woman prayed: "Thank you for love. Thank you for unity."
"Loud, direct, BIPOC-centered cries for justice and acknowledgment fly in the face of who they want to be," a resident who recently lived near George Floyd Square said to me. "To let GFS stand would be to admit that we are not what so many of us proclaim to be."
George Floyd Square is one of the few places in Minnesota where it is safe to be Black — fully Black. If travelers visit the Guthrie, Mall of America and the spoon, they should also stop by George Floyd Square. We should show them the wound — and the promise. Thursday's move, however, could prove to be the first step toward methodically erasing everything that's unfolded over the last year.
It also represents a miscalculation. If folks could think beyond shame and reputation, there would be more room to consider the educational value of the site, beyond its logistical elements or safety concerns.
During my first trip to the Lorraine Motel, a diverse mix of observers stood next to me.
A group from a predominantly Black church had come by bus. A multiracial family stared at the inscription outside Room 306 — a Bible passage, Genesis 37:19-20 — and a young couple spoke French to one another.
Our only common ground that day was our collective reverence for King and our acknowledgment of the tragedy that ended his life on that balcony in 1968.
It was difficult to imagine the civil rights leader's last breaths. But I was glad to know we would never forget what happened there.