Even now, Baton Rouge businessman Melvin Hardnett stands in awe of the history that's been placed in his care: the hearse that carried the body of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"When I look back, I can't believe that someone like me was the first person to see it when they opened the storage unit door," Hardnett says.
And beginning with a preview at 6 p.m. Tuesday, the Capitol Park Museum will have the hearse on display for everyone to see when it opens its exhibit, "Carrying on the Dream." The hearse is on loan from Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers CEO and founder Todd Graves, who bought it from a Tallahassee, Florida, collector in June.
"We're excited that the exhibit is opening on Martin Luther King's actual birthday," Graves says. "The hearse will be at the Capitol Park Museum for a year, then we'll move it to another museum. Our plan is to move it to a different museum every year to give as many people a chance to see it as possible."
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But first, the hearse had to be moved from Tallahassee to Baton Rouge, a task that fell to Hardnett and his company, Geaux Limeaux. Graves often hires Hardnett's transport service for moving jobs.
But Hardnett knew this job would be different.
"I drove to Tallahassee to pick up the hearse, and the moment they opened the door to the storage unit, I got chills," Hardnett says. "I was looking at history. I was looking at the car that carried the man who was responsible for changing America."
The hearse is a 1966 Cadillac 616 Superior Coach once owned by R.S. Lewis & Sons, the Memphis, Tennessee, funeral home that prepared King's body after his assassination on April 4, 1968.
The coach carried King’s body from the St. Joseph Hospital to the funeral home, then from the funeral home to the Memphis airport, where it was received by his widow, Coretta Scott King. His body was flown to Atlanta, where he was buried.
Last spring, a collector friend told Graves the hearse was on the market. Graves bought it, then had Hardnett transport it by truck to Baton Rouge, where it's since been in storage.
"It's only been on display once since we brought it here," Hardnett says. "That was for Course Con at the River Center. It was an event that addresses violence, and Martin Luther King III was there."
But that display was only for a limited audience. Graves and Capitol Park Museum Director Rodneyna Hart emphasize that this exhibit is for everybody.
"Todd wanted to show it first in a museum in Baton Rouge, and he was looking for a museum that would give access to as many people as possible," Hart says. "He asked if we would be interested, and there was no question — yes."
Curator Jeff David began working on the exhibit in October, also adding Baton Rouge artifacts from the Civil Rights era, including reproductions of stools from the Kress Department Store lunch counter protest.
Tuesday's preview also will kick off the Walls Project's four-day MLK Festival of Service from Jan. 18 to Jan. 21. It also will include a screening of the documentary, "I am MLK Jr."
But the hearse is the centerpiece. On Monday afternoon, Hardnett loaded it in a truck and drove it to the museum. He backed it out of the truck, drove it to the museum's front doors, then emptied its gas tank.
"We have to empty everything inflammable for safety reasons," he says.
Museum staff then pushed the car into the lobby, where small dolly carts were placed on the wheels to slide it into the first-floor exhibit space.
Afterward, Hardnett wiped down the vehicle's entire surface with a soft rag.
"I am the curator for this hearse now, and I will be coming in to wipe it down for all the events," he says. "It's just my hope that a lot of school groups and kids will come in to see this. There's so much violence out there, especially black-on-black violence. And kids need to see this car that transported a man who fought against violence, yet lost his life to it. He sacrificed it all."
"Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who changed the world, and it's important that the next generation understands this," Graves says. "I want them to see this and understand who he was and what he stood for. Many of us didn't get a chance to hear his speeches in our lifetimes, so I'm hoping the people coming to this exhibit will be able to appreciate him and his work through this tribute to honor his life."
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