At the 55th commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death Tuesday (April 4) about 500 attendees enjoyed exceptional music arrangements of traditional spirituals, gospel favorites, and words of hope.
Set on the terrace of the National Civil Rights Museum, home of the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968, dynamic speakers inspired the enthusiastic crowd with words of encouragement and a reminder that new challenges are faced in a 21st-century world.
Tuesday’s commemoration was both solemn and uplifting.
A video greeting from Andrew Young, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations and a close King confidant, and keynote address from one of the leading voices in “Black Theology” drew from King’s last speech in Memphis, the night before his slaying, commonly called the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Keynote speaker, Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, challenged attendees with a question, both rhetorical and practical: “Can America Be Saved?”
“Before Dr. King died, he planned to preach a sermon entitled, ‘Why America May Go to Hell,’” said Moss. “Dr. King was a radical…And I want to draw from his message and ask, ‘Can America Be Saved?’”
Moss noted the rise in white supremacy embodied in “Make America Great Again.”
“I have a question for those in this movement,” said Moss. “When you say ‘Make America Great Again,’ I want to know which year you’re talking about.
“Are you talking about 1955 when I didn’t have the right to vote? Are you talking about back before women could vote. Or are you talking about 1853? I want to know what year you are talking about.”
Moss questioned the sense of equality in public policy.
“Public health authorities continue to sound the alarm on the opioid epidemic because so many people are dying,” Moss said. “But just a few years back, the crack epidemic was destroying communities, and nobody said a word.”
Moss likened the ills of modern-day America to “midnight.”
“The bad news is that it is midnight,” said Moss. “…And also, the good news is that it’s midnight. Because when it is midnight, there is darkness, but we also know that morning has already come.”
Moss’ hopeful tone was also evident in Young’s video message.
“It has been 55 years since I stood on the balcony with my good friend and brother,” said Young. “…The spirit of Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot. That’s the image that stuck with me as I saw Dr. King’s body lying there on the ground —still, not moving…
“… Practically everyone has access to a phone camera. A nation watched video of Derek Chauvin take George Floyd’s life, while four other officers stood by and did nothing.
“Some things are different, but the old fights are the same. Let’s stay involved and keep Dr. King’s dream alive. King’s presence is still here with us.”
Asst. Attorney General Kristen Clarke with the U. S. Department of Justice touted the accomplishments of the department under the Biden administration.
“We secured convictions for all three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery,” said Clarke. “Voter suppression and voter discrimination is still rampant. People are dying because of the unjustified violence of the police.
“We are holding law enforcement officials accountable for their actions. We have charged all four officers in the murder of Breonna Taylor.
“Banks here in Memphis are still red-lining, and we will continue to fight it.”
NCRM President Dr. Russ Wigginton was the evening’s emcee.
Portions of Dr. King’s speech was heard just before the traditional six bells rang at 6:01 p.m., the moment an assassin’s bullet hit its target.
It’s a King Day tradition to recount the words of King’s last public address in Memphis. It is the “Mountaintop” speech:
“…And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
“…Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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. And 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.”