Speeches, marches mark anniversary of Martin Luther King's death

- Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the civil rights leader's family and admirers were marking the anniversary of his death with marches, speeches and quiet reflection Wednesday.

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The commemorations stretched from his hometown of Atlanta to Memphis, where he died, and points beyond.

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 when he was shot.

Others were assembling in Atlanta, where King's daughter the Rev. Bernice A. King moderated an awards ceremony in his honor. She recalled her father as a civil rights leader and great orator whose message of peaceful protest was still vital decades later.

"We decided to start this day remembering the apostle of nonviolence," she said.

RELATED: Atlanta commemorating 50th anniversary of MLK’s death 

The Memphis events were scheduled to feature King's contemporaries, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. 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 April 4, 1968. He was 39.

President Donald Trump issued a proclamation in honor of the anniversary, saying: "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."

The president has been the target of veiled criticism by some speakers at King commemorations in recent days as they complained of fraught race relations and other divisions made plain since he was elected.

The anniversary of King's death coincides with a resurgence of white supremacy, the continued shootings of unarmed black men and a parade of discouraging statistics on the lack of progress among black Americans on issues from housing to education to wealth. But rather than despair, the resounding message repeated at the commemorations was one of resilience, resolve, and a renewed commitment to King's legacy and unfinished work.

RELATED: Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years after assassination

Wednesday's events followed a rousing celebration the night before of King's "I've Been To the Mountaintop" speech at Memphis' Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. He delivered this speech the night before he was assassinated.

Inside the church, Bernice King called her older brother, Martin Luther King III, to join her in the pulpit, and she discussed the difficulty of publicly mourning their father - a man hated during his lifetime, now beloved around the world.

"It's important to see two of the children who lost their daddy 50 years ago to an assassin's bullet," said Bernice King, now 55. "But we kept going. Keep all of us in prayer as we continue the grieving process for a parent that we've had yet to bury."

A gospel singer led a rousing rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and the gathering took on the air of a mass meeting.

Lee Saunders, a national labor leader, recounted how on that night in 1968, King made an unplanned appearance to deliver the famous speech without notes after his aides saw how passionate the crowd was: "There was one man they wanted to hear from."

But Saunders stressed that the purpose of the week's commemorations was not just to look to the past.

"Dr. King's work - our work - isn't done. We must still struggle; we must still sacrifice. We must still educate and organize and mobilize. That's why we're here in Memphis. Not just to honor our history, but to seize our future," he said.

Some of the sanitation workers who participated with King in a 1968 strike sat in the front row and were treated like celebrities, with audience members stopping to take photos with them before the event started.

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