The daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remembered him as “the apostle of nonviolence” as admirers marked the 50th anniversary of his assassination Wednesday with marches, speeches and quiet reflection.
At events around the country, participants took time to both reflect on King’s legacy and discuss how his example can apply to racial and economic divides still plaguing society. Instead of sorrow, King’s contemporaries and a new generation of social activists presented a message of resilience and hope.
Speaking in King’s hometown of Atlanta, the Rev. Bernice A. King 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 during a ceremony to award the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize held at the King Center.
In Memphis, where King died, police estimated that 10,000 people showed up for an early afternoon march led by the same sanitation workers union whose low pay King had come to protest when he was shot.
Dixie Spencer, president of the Bolivar Hardeman County, Tennessee, branch of the NAACP, said remembrances of King’s death should be a call to action.
“We know what he worked hard for, we know what he died for, so we just want to keep the dream going,” Spencer said. “We just want to make sure that we don’t lose the gains that we have made.”
Before the march, the rapper Common and pop singer Sheila E had the crowd dancing and bobbing their heads. Memphis events were also scheduled to feature King’s contemporaries, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
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.
Observances marking King’s death were planned coast-to-coast.
In New York, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded months after King’s slaying, planned an evening performance in his honor. Community organizers scheduled a march and commemorative program marking the anniversary in Yakima, Washington.
In Montgomery, Alabama, where King first gained notice leading a boycott against segregated city buses, came a symbol of transformation: The daughter of King’s one-time nemesis, segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace, planned to participate in a program honoring the slain civil rights leader.
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.
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.
“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,” national labor leader Lee Saunders said on Tuesday night after a gospel singer led a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for an enthusiastic crowd.
Brumback reported from Atlanta.