Disciples determined to pay grateful tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. converged on Memphis from myriad parts of the world. They absorbed and contributed to three power-packed days of speeches, rallies and church services boasting a virtual who’s who in politics, entertainment and labor relations.
It all culminated Wednesday afternoon at the National Civil Rights Museum, which encompasses the old Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot down while standing on the balcony outside of room 306 on April 4, 1968.
Thousands gathered, a hopeful sea of humanity, undeterred despite the brisk stir of a wind that brought the chill factor down to 35 degrees.
Like pilgrims making their way to sacred ground, there was unity of purpose – to honor a man with a dream; a man who stimulated so many others to dream. The cold was of no consequence. The day was about honoring the man and his legacy. Many thousands – multicultural and multinational – were unified and single in purpose.
Marchers gathered in downtown Memphis and then wove their way to iconic Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, the world headquarters of the Church of God in Christ and the site of Dr. King’s prophetic last speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.” They filled the streets; great throngs walking, chanting, singing together. When they reached Mason Temple in South Memphis (home of ZIP code 38126, one of the poorest in the nation), youngsters from LaRose Elementary School cheered and held up signs that read, “I Am A Man.”
These children and young people, who were not even born when Dr. King lived, came to hear about him through the faithful witness of those who were there – allies and fellow laborers in the work. They listened to those who touched him and walked with him.
Former President Barack Obama drew a chorus of cheers with his video message.
“There would never have been a President Obama without a Dr. King,” he said. “I join you in honoring Dr. King’s life and legacy.”
News analyst and talk show host Van Jones (a Tennessee native) and Roland Martin (journalist, syndicated columnist, author and lecturer) were celebrity hosts. Actors Chris Tucker and Glynn Turman sat among the crowd. Sheila E. of Prince fame offered words of encouragement at the Mason Temple rally.
The Rev. Dr. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III were featured speakers at Tuesday’s Mountaintop Commemoration Service at Mason Temple. They returned home to Atlanta to headline activities at the King Center, where Dr. King and their mother, Coretta Scott King, are buried.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed the final gathering. He began with his familiar “I Am Somebody” call-and-response chant.
“This celebration is not the end, but a new beginning. We are determined to never stop fighting. We will never give up because there is hope in resurrection. Children are marching for gun control. Dr. King is alive. His spirit lives.
“Someone said to me, ‘what are you going to do? You have Parkinson’s disease, and there is no cure. But I know a doctor who has a cure. I have been young, and now, I’m old. But I’ve never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. There is hope. There is healing because of the power of the resurrection.”
The Rev. Dr. Jim Lawson, “the architect of the non-violent movement,” according to U.S. Rep John Lewis (D.-Ga.), challenged those gathered to “work toward a non-violent society.”
The Rev. Dr. Al Sharpton led the crowd in a call-and-response: “No justice, no peace.”
“Fifty years later, we’ve come not to mourn, but to recommit. Dr. King did not die in vain,” said Sharpton. “We must stand up against poverty, and mass incarceration. Don’t let union rights be taken away. March on. Fight on. Stay the course. Forward ever, backward never.”
Members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. set a wreath under the balcony where Dr. King died. Roland Martin declared that “both Jesus and Dr. King were Alphas.”
It was a day of extraordinary sights. White men carried signs that read, “I Am A Man.” And the presence of police officers made for a striking contrast. In 1968, they chased marchers down with clubs and tear gas. Fifty years later, they protected and directed marchers with traffic blockades. They smiled and nodded as marchers walked by. Officers, themselves, were racially diverse.
Labor leaders and elected officials urged action “this day forward,” working in every facet of life, upholding and fighting for just causes.
The culminating event was highlighted with the vocal artistry of the 105 Voices of Legacy from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Traditional spirituals and modern gospel selections were reminiscent of those early civil rights gatherings.
And then came 6:01 p.m., that fateful moment when Dr. King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Thousands stood – silent and solemn – as a bell tolled. It rang 39 times over several minutes, signifying those final moments when Dr. King struggled for his life. And then, the bell ceased.
Was it over? Not for this crowd. The Rev. Al Green came up with his band and played a rousing rendition of Dr. King’s favorite song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
The next selection was “Love and Happiness,” one of Green’s many R&B classic hits, and the crowd, including Congressman Lewis, sang along.
And a memorable day came to a fitting end.