Black Experience

Reflections from Memphis on MLK’s Death

The photograph of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laying in a pool of blood on the second floor of the Lorraine Hotel still moves me to tears. It’s an image that is both haunting, heartbreaking and yet necessary to illustrate the sacrifice of a man who committed his life’s work to bringing this nation together. I was honored when my news managers agreed to let me cover the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.

Being in Memphis, Tennessee on the anniversary was spectacular. The ceremonies leading up to the day, and those on April 4, were upbeat celebrations of the life he lived and the message he preached — confirming his belief and desire that people of color in America would finally be treated equally.

Before the wreath laying ceremony at the National Civil Rights Museum, there was an I AM MAN rally and march for economic justice and labor rights. The event took place on Beale Street in front of the AFSCME local 1733 labor union office for Memphis sanitation workers. It served as a moving recreation of the 1968 march which Dr. King led on behalf of over 1,300 striking workers fighting for more humane working conditions and better pay. At the 50th anniversary of the rally, the leader of the union said workers today continue to fight the good fight.

During the rally, R&B recording artist Goapele sang her hit song “Closer to My Dreams.” The song has long been one of my favorites and was befitting for the anniversary.

Grammy-winning rapper Common uplifted the crowd with freestyle verse honoring the civil rights icon. Of course, he performed his Oscar-winning song “Glory,” much to the audience’s delight.

At different points throughout the week-long events, I chatted with celebrities and public figures like actor Chris Tucker, political commentator Angela Rye, the Rev. Dr. William Barber and Congressmen Charles Rangel and Bobby Rush. I’ll never forget speaking with Rangel, however, because he made me laugh. I asked him what it was like to march with Dr. King. He immediately said he was probably cussing and fussing the whole time because of his bad feet. It was a nice, honestly shared memory.

While cold temperatures shocked our bodies and strong winds moved us from side to side, the sun still shone brightly on the day of the 50th anniversary ceremony. Thousands packed the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum where special tributes included a video message from President Barack Obama. He expressed his sentiments that he attributes the possibility of his becoming America’s first Black president to Dr. King and challenged us to follow the example set by Dr. King.

Civil rights icons like John Lewis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson also joined in the celebration. In fact, Jackson stood on the balcony outside room 306 where Dr. King died, saying the memories of that day and the emotions they elicited remain fresh and raw.

Church bells rang out 39 times representing the number of years King lived. Those in the courtyard became still during the solemn moment.

Two of King’s children, Martin III and Dr. Bernice King, showed incredible strength throughout. The anniversary of Dr. King’s death serves as a reminder that we must live the dream he prophesied. We must be the change we want to see. We must look beyond our biases and prejudices to build upon his work, to display true humility and to treat our differences with respect and dignity.

Dr. King, like any human, has his shortcomings which made him one with whom we can all more easily identify. Meanwhile, the totality of his work, even 50 years later, continue to resonate — even louder — than ever before.

As for me, who he was and the things for which he stood, still inspire me.

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