Marches, speeches and reflection honour the civil rights leader killed 50 years ago: ‘It makes me cry when I think what they took from us’
Fifty years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, the civil rights leader’s family and admirers were marking the anniversary of his death with marches, speeches and quiet reflection on Wednesday.
The commemorations stretched from his hometown of Atlanta to Memphis, where he died, and points beyond, including the nation’s capital.
Hundreds of people bundled in hats and coats gathered early in Memphis for a march led by the same sanitation workers’ union whose low pay King had come to protest about when he was shot.
Others were assembling in Atlanta, where King’s daughter, the Rev Bernice A King, was set to moderate an awards ceremony in his honour.
The Memphis events are scheduled to feature King’s contemporaries, including the Rev Jesse Jackson, the Rev Al Sharpton and congressman John Lewis, along with celebrities such as the rapper Common. In the evening, the Atlanta events culminate with a bell-ringing and wreath-laying at his crypt to mark the moment when he was gunned down on the balcony of the old Lorraine motel on 4 April 1968. He was 39.
In Washington a steady flow of people visited the Martin Luther King memorial, a granite statue of King which stands 30ft tall and is surrounded by some of his most enduring quotations. The anniversary coincides with the city’s brief cherry blossom season, adding an exquisite flurry of pink on a serene spring morning.
Flowers and a signed note were left at the base of the statue, which looks across the waters of the tidal basin to the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owning third president. Addressed to Dr King, the handwritten note read: “Your message of non-violence still resonates with many and your message of Human Rights for all people is still being heard today. Rest in Peace!”
Ron Meredith, a 38-year-old African American, was listening to King’s “mountaintop” speech on the radio on Wednesday morning and decided a visit to the memorial was “the least I could do”. He explained: “I feel an immense amount of pride and love for the man. It makes me cry when I think what they took from us. His sacrifice was Christ-like.”
If King were alive today, added Meredith, a financial regulator who lives in Washington, “he’d be kneeling with Kaepernick” – a reference to the football player who started the take-a-knee protests against racial injustice.
April Keech, a chaplain and associate priest, welled up with tears as she recalled learning of King’s assassination when she was a child. “I was in ninth grade in high school and in the morning black friends wore black arm bands and were not talking and I suddenly realised how awful it was.”
Keech, 66, who now lives in London, added: “It was a time that rocked this country and the whole myth of American morality. What I like about Martin Luther King is that he loved this country and he had integrity, which I think has been lost in the American political scene. The current policies on immigration are an insult to King and his memory.
“If he were alive today, he would be worried by current policies but he would still continue to fight. Things have changed in law but it will take another generation. I’m glad young people have stood up and hope they will continue to stand up to an older generation clinging to white minority rule.”
School trips were taking place at the memorial. Student Tobi Babarinde, 13, from Phoenix, Arizona and a son of Nigerian immigrants, was impressed by the monument, which depicts King emerging from a mountain. “He looks cool,” he said. “He has an intense look.”
King’s view on America in 2018, Babarinde suggested, would be: “It’s better than it was but it still needs some work.”
Ryan Biggin, 45, visiting with his family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, mused: “One step forward and several steps backward. I am sure Martin Luther King would still be as vocal on what’s happening today. It would be interesting to see if social media would diminish him or make him more powerful.”
In Memphis hundreds congregated for a rally on an unseasonably cold morning outside the headquarters of the local public employees’ union.
The crowd, largely composed of workers representing various different unions was made up of both Memphians and people who had traveled from all across the US.
Asked what drew him out, lifelong Memphis resident Ishmail Muhammad replied: “The dream”, invoking King’s most famous speech delivered at the Mall on Washington in 1963. “There’s been some progress,” Muhammad said, “but there’s a lot of things that need to addressed.”
Muhammad was about 12 years old when King was killed and still remembers the day vividly. “I was playing marbles when I found out,” he recalled.
“It’s a great thing for us to commemorate the memory, but what we really have to do is stand together as a group of people and really try to bring the dream to fruition,” Muhammad said.
Twenty-year-old Geraldo Viveros travelled more than 10 hours by bus from Chicago to be in Memphis for the day’s events. “I came here because I want to show that I have rights as a gay man and as a Mexican immigrant,” Viveros said, with a rainbow pride flag draped over his back like a cape.
Pamela Davidson, a member of the United Auto Workers of America union, said the show of union solidarity was for her, overwhelming. “I’m proud we could come together for a man that really gave his life for our civil rights and pulling us together,” Davidson said. “Dr King knew that if you didn’t have a good wage, and we did not help people within the workforce, where are we gonna be?”
In many of the cities where King’s presence left a direct legacy, like Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, his work there was specifically about achieving racial justice for disenfranchised black Americans under Jim Crow. By the time he came to Memphis though, King had begun to pivot to a platform that increasingly focused on the perils of militarism and on economic justice, which is part of the reason the Memphis commemoration has been largely oriented around jobs and wages in ways that other King tributes often gloss over.
Donald Trump issued a statement paying tribute to the murdered civil rights leader and presenting what has become the conventional interpretation of the life and work of a man who was hugely controversial among whites during his lifetime. “Though he was taken from this earth unjustly, he left us with his legacy of justice and peace,” the US president said. “In remembrance of his profound and inspirational virtues, we look to do as Dr King did while this world was privileged enough to still have him.”
King’s assassination triggered huge grief and anger in Washington, where racial inequality was entrenched. There was violence and destruction over four days in predominantly African American neighbourhoods. Twelve people died, more than 6,000 were arrested and nearly 1,200 buildings burned. The economic damage took decades to repair.