By Joe Tash
Ben Kamin has always felt a spiritual connection to slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which has spanned his life from his teens in Cincinnati to his adulthood living locally. King’s message, said Kamin, has inspired his work as a rabbi, author and journalist.
“His life and his death and his impact on me and my friends in the ‘60s… have never left me,” said Kamin, whose eighth and latest book, “Room 306: The National Story of the Lorraine Motel” was published in April by Michigan State University Press.
The balcony in front of the Memphis motel’s Room 306 was the spot where an assassin’s bullet cut down King at age 39 on April 4, 1968. King had been in town to support a strike by black sanitation workers. His murder triggered riots in Memphis and dozens of other cities across the country.
Kamin’s book is an oral history, supported by interviews of many people close to the story, of how the Lorraine Motel was transformed after King’s assassination into the National Civil Rights Museum, which attracts some 200,000 visitors each year.
In the book’s introduction, Kamin said the “Lorraine Motel, one of the only places where black people could even lodge in the city, nondescript, unattractive, with mustard-yellow and blue walls, railings, and a second-story balcony, was a cinder-block inn set in a district of flophouses, pimps and undercover police lookout posts.”
Because African-Americans were unwelcome in hotels that catered to whites, the Lorraine hosted black jazz and blues musicians, athletes from Negro League ballplayers to the Harlem Globetrotters, and gospel preachers, Kamin wrote. It was also the place where King preferred to stay, particularly in Room 306, when he was in Memphis.
After his death, King’s room was left untouched, with beds unmade, ashtrays unemptied, and its rotary dial telephone and black-and-white TV set with rabbit ear antennas left in place.
Following King’s assassination, the motel fell on hard times, and was almost lost to foreclosure before a group of activists and philanthropists purchased the property and turned it into a museum.
Kamin said he became interested in the museum while researching his previous book, a memoir of his high school days, and his search, decades later, to find an African-American friend from his youth. Kamin said he launched that book, “Nothing Like Sunshine,” from the museum in April, 2010, and he returned in April of this year to launch the new book.
“It’s the real center of memory and commitment for the movement (King) inspired, so it’s powerful,” said Kamin of the motel-turned-museum.
“Memphis is about more than Elvis. It’s about civil rights and jazz and great ribs, but the Civil Rights Museum is a center-piece of the rebirth of Memphis,” he said.
In 2008, he said, three major-party presidential candidates — John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — visited the museum.
Kamin, 59, was born in Israel and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1962, when he was 9. The topic of civil rights has long been one of his primary interests.
Along with books, he has written hundreds of op-ed articles for publications ranging from the New York Times to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
Kamin also has led congregations in San Diego, Toronto, New York and Cleveland since his ordination as a rabbi in 1978. In 2004, he and his wife, Audrey, co-founded Reconciliation: A Synagogue Without Walls, which is a privately operated consulting agency for interfaith relations. In that capacity, Kamin said, he helps couples design wedding ceremonies incorporating aspects of the Jewish faith as well as other traditions.
“Love is the best religion of them all,” he said.
Kamin has two grown daughters from a previous marriage, and he lives locally with his wife and two stepchildren.
A book-signing event will be held for “Room 306” from noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 1, at Warwick’s bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla.
The book is currently available at Amazon.com and will be in bookstores later this summer, Kamin said.