Memphis Rally Embodies Dr. King’s Activist Spirit

Cherita Jackson Kirkland hugging her son, Luke Jackson, 7, as she is overcome with emotion listening to a bell tolling 39 times to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a ceremony outside of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

For complete coverage of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, click here.

MEMPHIS — They waved signs that said “I Am.” They came as labor leaders and politicians, retail workers and teachers. Most of all, they came with a pointed declaration: The struggle continues.

Thousands of people descended on this impoverished southern city on Wednesday in a show of force that was as much a commemoration as a call to action, as the nation remembered the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

An emotional crowd gathered around the Lorraine Motel balcony here where Dr. King was slain by an assassin’s bullet, observing a moment of silence while a bell tolled at 6:01 p.m., the time he was shot. The balcony was draped in a black sheet with a wreath of red and white flowers attached to it. While many celebrated the achievements of the civil rights icon, they also lamented the country’s continuing struggles with poverty, racism and inequality.

“There’s something wrong in our nation, where we live, where a minimum of 48 million people are living in poverty,” said Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s oldest son, his voice roaring like his father’s at a rally. “That’s unacceptable. We must do better.”

Many activists expressed concern that Dr. King’s legacy might be sanitized as someone who simply advocated peace. They said they hoped that this moment would provide a chance to highlight the forceful lengths to which he was willing to go — like resistance through civil disobedience — to overcome racism.

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How Dr. King Changed a Sanitation Worker’s Life

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis in 1968 to march with sanitation workers who were protesting low wages and poor working conditions. Cleophus Smith marched with him. He’s still on the job.

If Dr. King came back and seen the way things are, he wouldn’t be pleased with it. No, he wouldn’t be pleased at all. All right. I call us sanitation engineers because we’re supposed to run the job, not let the job run us. I was 24 years old when I started. But back then, it was a different ball game. Back then, the working condition, it was unbearable. After three weeks, when I got my first check, I broke down and cried. We were working full time. And at the same time, the wages were so low, we was qualified to get food stamps. We were determined that we was going to get a union organized, that we would see justice. We were striking about the wages, fair treatment and dignity. When we heard that Dr. King was coming to Memphis to help us in that sanitation strike, we were very surprised. We knew then that there was somebody that cared about our struggle. We was at Mason Temple this particular night. Dr. King said, the Lord allowed me to go to the mountaintop and to look over into the promised land. And he said, I might not get there with you, but we will make it to the promised land. Everybody was just jubilated, just excited, not knowing the next day would be a day of silence. Because of Dr. King’s death, that was one of the reasons that Mayor Loeb went on and signed that union into a decree. We got what we wanted, but at the same time, we lost the great leader. “He never thought in terms of his personal welfare, but always in terms of the cause which he dedicated his life to.” I really had a lot of animosity. I came from the streets. I was a street thug. And Dr. King was the one that taught me, through his humility and his leadership. I said, that’s the way I’d like to be. “— united will never be defeated. The workers united will never be defeated. The workers united will never be defeated. The workers united will never be defeated.” There are still some unsolved problems need to be solved. “What do we want?” “15.” “When do we want it?” “Now!” “What do we want?” “15.” “When do want it?” “Now!” It is what it is until somebody can roll his sleeves up and get out there and fight.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis in 1968 to march with sanitation workers who were protesting low wages and poor working conditions. Cleophus Smith marched with him. He’s still on the job.

Many said they saw this as an urgent moment.

There are racist elements in the country, Mr. King said, “and some of the things that have been said by the president have given rise to this behavior. And so we got to find a way to work on the president’s heart, like we worked on George Wallace’s heart years ago and changed him.”

Mr. King and his sister Bernice King essentially endorsed today’s social justice movements — from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo — as extensions of their father’s work. Speaking on Tuesday evening at the Mason Temple, where Dr. King gave his final public address before he was killed, Ms. King said that her father had planned to preach a sermon titled “America may go to hell.” But he was killed before he ever got a chance to deliver it.

“It’s time for America to repent,” Ms. King said, before a fervent and rapt crowd.

A rally on Wednesday morning organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Church of God in Christ drew a crowd carrying signs with messages like “Fight Poverty” and “We got nothing to lose but our chains.” A banner hung high above a stage that read “#I AM 2018,” a nod to the “I Am a Man” slogan that Memphis sanitation workers used when they were striking in 1968, a cause that prompted Dr. King to travel to Memphis a half-century ago.

In many ways, this city is the ideal backdrop to channel Dr. King’s fight. Racial tensions still run deep. Last week, a convenience store clerk fatally shot Dorian Harris, a black teenager, after he stole a beer. The clerk fired at the teenager down the street, and did not check to see if he had struck him. The boy’s dead body was discovered two days later. The clerk has been charged with murder.

Community activists and city leaders are also divided. Activists filed lawsuits last year after they learned that the city had kept a list of people, including Black Lives Matter advocates, who would not be allowed in City Hall without an escort.

Poverty remains endemic. Memphis is the poorest large metropolitan area in the country. More than a third of children live in poverty, including nearly 50 percent of black children. The income gap between black and white residents of Shelby County, which includes Memphis, has remained the same over the last 40 years, with black median income about half of what it is for white people.

“He probably would feel sad about Memphis, as so many other places where he did a lot of his work,” Ms. King said of her father. “The concentration of this poverty that we as a country never really confronted, we haven’t dealt with.”

Dr. King’s death only hastened the decline of predominantly black communities that were starved of resources.

“We didn’t have this in Memphis,” said Al Lewis, 64, a retired postal worker, pointing to an empty lot next to a bungalow home enveloped in weeds and trees in a southeast Memphis neighborhood. “The soul of the city died.”

Mr. Lewis remembered hearing the news that Dr. King had been shot while he was at his aunt’s house. He raced home and as he was coming to the door, his father came out with a rifle, his mother trailing behind.

“Baby don’t go, don’t go, don’t go,” Mr. Lewis recalled his mother saying.

“They’ve killed our leader, let’s go kill some of them,” Mr. Lewis recalled his father responding.

His mother was eventually able to talk down his father, he said.

White people fled the city, which is now about two-thirds black, and manufacturing companies followed, leading to a steep decline in the economy and quality of life.

Mr. Lewis is among a group of Memphis activists who vigorously, and often disruptively, protest police abuses and the city’s low-wage economy. They even shouted down the white mayor on Wednesday, as he spoke from the Lorraine’s balcony, which was draped in a black sheet.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Lewis and his wife, Catherine, hopped into their sport-utility vehicle and led a caravan of activists to a FedEx shipping facility. The activists parked in the middle of the road in front of the entrance. They blasted music and danced in the streets.

They left at the urging of the police after about 30 minutes, though some were arrested later in the day while protesting in front of a jail.

But this, the activists said, was the legacy of Dr. King that they did not want lost amid the ceremony surrounding his death.

“Since this is the poorest city in the country, we just didn’t think it’d be fitting to honor Dr. King by having a damn banquet or giving out some awards,” Mr. Lewis said. “We decided to do a direct action, civil disobedience in honor of how he would have done if he was here. This is what he came here to do. We’re trying to finish that off.”

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