'The work is not complete': MLK's legacy is honoured 50 years after he was assassinated

Fifty years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader’s family and admirers will remember him with marches, speeches and quiet reflection on Wednesday.

The commemorations stretch from his hometown of Atlanta to Memphis, where he died, and points beyond.

Among the first events Wednesday is a march led by the same sanitation workers union whose low pay King had come to protest when he was shot. Hundreds of people gathered at the headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, where they chanted, banged drums and held signs saying “I Am” — one of the slogans for events surrounding the anniversary of King’s death. 

Andre Gipson, the local president for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said about 400 members from other cities were in Memphis for the march. He said it promised to be a “very special” event for workers. Chats with CBC’s Heather Hiscox on the 50th anniversary of the assassination10:15

The Memphis events are scheduled to feature King’s contemporaries, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, along with celebrities such as rapper Common. 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.

Events were also taking taking place in Atlanta, where King’s daughter, Rev. Bernice A. King, moderated an awards ceremony in his honour, and near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C.

In a video released through social media, President Donald Trump called on Americans to carry on King’s legacy of “justice, equality and freedom.”

“The promise he fought for could never be taken away — his words, his deeds, they live on forever,” Trump said.

“On this cherished day, we honour the memory of Rev. King and we rededicate ourselves to a glorious future where every American from every walk of life can live free from fear, liberated from hatred and uplifted by boundless love for their fellow citizens,” the president added.

In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo, Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his landmark speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (The Associated Press)

Wednesday’s events followed a rousing celebration the night before of King’s “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop” speech at Memphis’s Mason Temple Church of God in Christ. He delivered this speech the night before he was assassinated.

We have a very good nation but we can, in fact, create a great nation. Dad showed us it only takes a few good women and men to bring about change.– Martin Luther King III, to CBC News

Inside the church, Bernice King called her older brother, Martin Luther King III, to join her in the pulpit, and she discussed the difficulty of publicly mourning their father — a man hated during his lifetime, now beloved around the world.

“It’s important to see two of the children who lost their daddy 50 years ago to an assassin’s bullet,” said Bernice King, now 55. “But we kept going. Keep all of us in prayer as we continue the grieving process for a parent that we’ve had yet to bury.”

A gospel singer led a rousing rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing, which has been called the “Black American national anthem,” and the gathering took on the air of a mass meeting. 

Lee Saunders, a national labour leader, recounted how on that night in 1968, King made an unplanned appearance to deliver the famous speech without notes after his aides saw how passionate the crowd was: “There was one man they wanted to hear from.” 

But Saunders stressed that the purpose of the week’s commemorations was not just to look to the past. Thousands gather for the I AM 2018 March and Rally outside the AFSCME headquarters during events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on Wednesday. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters)

“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 honour our history, but to seize our future.”

Former president Barack Obama spoke in a video, saying “as long as we’re still trying, Dr. King’s soul is still rejoicing.”

MLK III heartened by student-led movement

The resounding message repeated at the church was one of resilience, resolve, and a renewed commitment to King’s legacy and unfinished work.

Trump 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.

The anniversary of King’s killing 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. 

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech, some students in the U.S. are poring over his message and asking: What has really changed since?6:05

Martin Luther King III told CBC News on Wednesday that anyone can contribute to change, pointing to the recent example of students rising up and forcing a national debate in the wake of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“It’s clear to me that the work is not complete,” he said. “We have a very good nation but we can, in fact, create a great nation. Dad showed us it only takes a few good women and men to bring about change.

“Today I’m very excited about a high school student-led movement to address guns in this society. I’ve been talking about gun control, gun violence for 40 years. Not only did I lose my father on this day 50 years ago, but in 1974, my grandmother [Alberta Williams King] was also gunned down, in a church while playing the Lord’s Prayer, so the issue of guns is very important to me.”

The commemoration Tuesday of the mountaintop speech followed an announcement earlier in the day by civil rights leaders who are reviving an economic justice campaign first planned by King. The organizers of a new Poor People’s Campaign are planning 40 days of marches, sit-ins and other peaceful protests. 

Starting May 14, clergy, union members and other activists will take part in the events in about 30 states, targeting Congress and state legislatures. Organizers also are planning a large June 23 rally in Washington — similar to what King had envisioned. The original Poor People’s Campaign was carried out in 1968 after King’s death by other civil rights leaders.

Martin Luther King, Jr., appeared on CBC’s Front Page Challenge in 1959.6:01

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