Pelting rain and gathering winds are no match for the spirit of a crowd filled with individuals who declare themselves rooted in righteousness. Such was the case at Mason Temple 50 years ago. And so it was on Tuesday night.
The crowd – striking for its diversity – answered the I Am 2018 movement call to observe the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech with a commitment to add energy to a new political movement and aggressive voter education and civic engagement push. I AM 2018 is organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Church of God in Christ.
The sanctuary was filled to its capacity of about 4,000. Hundreds more milled around in the massive lobby to stand in earshot of the iconic speakers on the podium. European-Americans and Hispanics interwoven in a blended mix of multicultural humanity. It looked like Dr. King’s dream.
And the music. A youth choir and another COGIC mass choir of hundreds sang modern, gospel selections and traditional renditions of songs from that service back in 1968.
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” — Dr. King’s favorite. And the Negro National Anthem — “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Except on this night, it was everyone’s national anthem. For people of all races joined in.
There were moments of profound revelation and memorable expression.
President Barak Obama drew a swell of cheers from the crowd as he appeared on the giant, dual screens with a video message:
“It is an honor to celebrate with you on this occasion. I was there when sanitation workers were inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame…These were men who served without complaint, picking up other people’s garbage. There was a quiet dignity about them. All they were asking for was the union to be recognized, for the right to bargain, for just a few more cents an hour. They were arrested, beaten, maced, and one man lost his life…
“Today, our children are marching through the streets demanding protection from guns. People are fighting for decent healthcare for everyone. Dr. King’s soul is still rejoicing. Thank you, AFSCME and Church of God in Christ, for drawing a road map to the future.You are showing a new generation the power of their voice to effect change. Surely, Dr. King’s soul is still rejoicing.”
AFSCME President Lee Saunders recognized the contributions of Bill Lucy, a key AFSCME figure in those 1968 union negotiations and lauded the courage of the strikers.
“When Robert Walker and Echol Cole were crushed to death in that malfunctioning truck, the sanitation workers had had enough. They walked off the job and protested with dignity and respect. They were tired of being called ‘boy’ in the Jim Crow South. Unbowed by tear gas and night sticks, they declared before the world, ‘I Am A Man.’
“…Today, we still declare that there can be no racial justice without economic justice. We came tonight to not only honor our history, but to seize our future. There is a call to action to fight poverty. We have not yet reached the promised land. But we will all get there. And we ain’t gone let nobody turn us around…”
Paul F. Chavez continues the work of his father, the late Cesar Chavez, who championed the rights of migrant farm workers. Chavez told the crowd that his father followed Dr. King’s work.
“He organized boycotts, marches, and adopted his (King’s) non-violence philosophy. My father went on that 25-day fast, losing 35 pounds and almost his life. But he realized that giving one’s life is the only way to find life. There is a hostile and dangerous, anti-immigrant racism in the land. But we won’t stop until we get the victory. We will persist. We will resist, and we will refuse to give up. Yes, we can.”
King ally and former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young recounted memories of those heady, civil rights days:
“We celebrate the power of God in our lives. Dr. King understood the power of resurrection. He went to jail on Good Friday…wrote that powerful ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’
“We were marching from Selma to Montgomery and Bull Connor was there with the firehoses and the dogs. He was yelling ‘Stop ‘em, stop ‘em. And we began to kneel and pray, and we prayed. We saw those police drop their firehoses, some with tears, and those dogs stopped barking. They were wagging their tails. The march moved forward and a lady in the crowd shouted, ‘The Lord done parted the Red Sea for us.’”
Via a video message, former President Bill Clinton said he was proud to join with AFSCME and COGIC in “renewing the call for racial justice and equality.”
“Fifty years later, we are still pushing for ‘a more perfect union.’ We will continue to fight until all rights are protected and the dignity of all people is recognized. Fifty years later, Dr. King’s spirit is alive.”
For many, the most visceral moment of the evening came when the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, who was at the podium, paused and said God was moving her to ask her brother, Martin Luther King Jr. III., to join her. He did in a show of unity and to honor their father together. King’s wife, Andrea, and daughter, Yolanda, also joined them on stage.
Dr. Bernice King spoke first:
‘Many don’t know the trauma we went through growing up. After our father was killed, our uncle was found floating in a swimming pool. Our grandmother, Alberta, was shot while playing the organ in church when I was 11 years old. We are still in the grieving process. Our brother, Dexter, is dealing with it in a different way. Please pray for our family.
“There was a speech my father was going to deliver on April 7th called ‘America May Go to Hell’… America must be born again. It has not dealt with the last vestiges of racism. America may go to hell. It has not dealt with poverty and the extreme militarism that robs the nation of resources to help its own people. America may go to hell. When there is more money spent in the military than in social initiatives investing in people, America may go to hell. I am not all I can be until you are all you can be. America must repent…”
MLK III followed, first thanking God for being back at Mason Temple:
“I wondered riding over here what Dad might have been thinking about tonight.
“I remember that last time when he was coming to Memphis. I said, ‘Dad, please don’t go.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, Martin. I’ll be back.’ And of course, he did not come back…But he wanted to prove that non-violence works. Today, kids are marching to change gun laws. The #Me Too movement is finally going to make gender equality real. We’ve got to keep on moving. Voter suppression laws are taking away the right for citizens of color to vote. But we can’t get no ways tired.
“In the words of that old song, ‘I don’t feel no ways tired. We’ve come too far from where we started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy…and I don’t believe our God…I don’t believe our God…I don’t believe our God brought us this far to leave us.’”
Perhaps, the most poignant moment in the service was the voice of
Dr. King’s own voice – him uttering the seemingly timeless end to the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech – added tear-level poignancy.
“…Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”