As the United States celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today as the country has for the past five decades, it’s difficult to believe an automotive artifact related to his death was left to languish in a field. The 1966 Lincoln Continental that is currently on display at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee only entered the museum’s possession in the last within the last 15 years. The Continental’s existence paralleled Dr. King’s final days in Memphis and the struggles for economic equality after Dr. King’s assassination.
Considering my background and last name, I should head off all the potential questions in the comments. I’m not closely related to Dr. King. Our closest common ancestor is from at least five generations ago in Ireland.
Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t own the white Lincoln Continental in question. The car belonged to Cornelia Crenshaw, a local civil rights activist in Memphis. Crenshaw was a Memphis Housing Authority employee until she was fired for being a pro-union advocate. From that point forward, she became a full-time activist and patron for the civil rights movement in Memphis. During his visits to Memphis, Crenshaw generously supported Dr. King, including loaning her Lincoln Continental for him to use in the city.
On February 1st, 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers sheltering from a torrential downpour in their garbage truck’s compactor were crushed to death when the compactor malfunctioned and turned on. The City of Memphis only gave the widows one month’s pay and $500 for funeral expenses. Two other sanitation workers were also crushed to death by their truck’s faulty compactor in 1964. The city didn’t replace the equipment since the original incident.
The outcry was swift and severe. On February 11th, the local sanitation workers’ union held a meeting demanding that the municipal government improve working conditions and increase wages or else. The city chose the latter, and a strike began. The next day, 85 percent of the city’s sanitation workforce didn’t show up for work. Mayor Henry Loeb ardently refused to negotiate. By March, marches became a daily occurrence.
Cornelia Crenshaw was a member of the strike’s strategy committee and convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Memphis. Dr. King came on March 18th and spoke to a crowd of 25,000 people. He called for the strike to expand to a citywide general strike and promised to return. King returned on March 28th. As the march progressed, violence broke out and demonstrators retreated to Clayborn Temple, the church where the strike was coordinated.
The police followed the protesters back to the church and tear-gassed the building. In the chaos of people scrambling to safety, a police officer murdered an unarmed sixteen-year-old boy. Numerous witnesses saw the officer press a shotgun against the boy’s chest and pull the trigger. The officer was never charged.
Dr. King arrived in Memphis for the third time on April 3rd. That day spoke at Mason Temple, where he spoke for 43 minutes. Near the conclusion, he said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” This was his final speech. On the night of April 4th, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was pronounced dead an hour later.
The strike ended 12 days later with a settlement while cities across the country still smoldered.
In 1969, Memphis Light, Gas and Water, the municipal utility company, announced a rate increase for garbage collection. The rate increase would not coincide with a wage increase for sanitation workers despite the promise of increased wages in the strike settlement agreed to the year prior. Cornelia Crenshaw immediately organized a protest of the price hike. She refused to pay her utility bill for a decade, and MLGW kept her utilities off for a decade.
In 1980, Crenshaw filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against MLGW that still resulted in a utilities partial payment program for all low-income Memphis residents. Later that year, a now 64-year-old Cornelia Crenshaw was arrested protesting at Memphis City Hall. She was protesting the poor infrastructure that attributed to the heatwave deaths of two parishioners at the church she attended.
Cornelia Crenshaw died in 1994.
Cornelia Crenshaw struggled financially during the 1980s. During that time, the V8 engine in her Continental blew a head gasket, and she couldn’t afford to get it repaired. The last car that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rode in was left to rot in a vacant lot behind an auto shop as a result. This historic vehicle would have been lost forever if it weren’t for a chance encounter.
In 2001, Bill Cales of Lemont, Illinois was on a trip to Memphis to research a book about Elvis Presley. At the National Civil Rights Museum (the former Lorraine Motel), a woman informed Cales of the Lincoln Continental. He was able to locate the car’s driver from the late 1960s and confirm that Cornelia Crenshaw previously own the vehicle and Dr. King ride in it.
The next step was recovering and restoring the vehicle. Cales enlisted the assistance of Rich Fortner, the owner of a body shop in St. John, Indiana. The purchase from the auto shop did not go as smoothly. The auto shop had left the Continental exactly where they put it when Crenshaw couldn’t afford to fix it. The car was severely damaged and overgrown with plants after being left exposed to the elements for two decades.
Fortner told the Southtown Star in 2008, “The guy there sold it to Cales for $6,000, which was a crying shame because with the condition it was in, he would have been lucky to get $500. It disgusts me to the core that this guy knew what he had but just made a buck off it instead of restoring it.”
Thankfully, the damage wasn’t significant enough to prevent restoration, and Fortner brought the car back to his shop in Indiana. Fortner noted:
“These Lincolns don’t get restored because they weren’t a popular car, but they’re beautiful, the epitome of luxury. It has a full unibody construction, and it was hand-built and coated, so it was virtually rust-free. It was smashed and damaged and had trees growing through it, but it didn’t have rust.”
Rich Fortner finished restoring the Lincoln Continental in 2008 after years of painstaking work. The car was hauled on a flatbed back to Memphis to be put on display at the National Civil Rights Museum, where it remains today.
While I’m forever grateful that such a culturally significant vehicle wasn’t destroyed by time and the elements, I can’t help but feel disappointed. I’m disheartened over the realization of how little the country has moved since those consequentially days in Memphis over 50 years ago. Saddened by how so many Americans dedicated their entire lives just to move a couple of inches up the slope. With tears in my eyes, it hurts to say that the mountaintop seems any closer.