50 years After MLK Assassination, What Comes Next?

Apr 4, 2018
Originally published on April 5, 2018 12:50 pm

In Memphis and across the nation, thousands are gathering — and some are protesting — to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The day honors King's work, looks at his legacy and raises the question: What comes next?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shot and killed King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. It happened just after 6 p.m. local time, and today when that moment passed, a bell from the city's historic Clayborn Temple rang out...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

CORNISH: ...Thirty-nine times. That's once for each year of King's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

CORNISH: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Memphis. And Debbie, you've been there this week reporting on events reflecting on King's legacy. What's been going on on the day, on the anniversary of his death?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, there are a lot of activities underway. You can probably hear. I'm here at the Lorraine Motel. But earlier today, I attended a march by a coalition of labor and civil rights groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTIVISTS: (Chanting) This is what democracy looks like. Show me what democracy looks like.

ELLIOTT: This was a recreation of the "I Am A Man" marches King came to Memphis to lead 50 years ago in support of striking sanitation workers. King's son, Martin Luther King III, helped lead that march along with the Reverend James Lawson. Now, Lawson was the civil rights leader who brought King to Memphis to help with the strike. And several of the sanitation workers who participated in the strike back then were also around.

CORNISH: What's the mood like?

ELLIOTT: It's part celebration, part somber remembrance. All day long, there have been tributes, excerpts of King's speeches, scripture readings, musical performances. But the most poignant moment thus far has been when the Reverend Jesse Jackson stood on the very spot on that balcony where King was shot. You know, Jackson was 26 years old at the time and was with him. And he talked about how difficult it was to be there and what happened back then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JESSE JACKSON: I've been blessed by God to come back here 50 years later. And every time, the scab comes off. The sore is still raw. The blood still oozes. This is the site of the crucifixion. But not far from here is the resurrection, the new hope and the new possibilities.

ELLIOTT: But he said from that balcony, he would not let one bullet kill a movement. And he said that King did not die in vain.

CORNISH: How are people reflecting on what King's legacy means today?

ELLIOTT: You know, the theme has been, where do we go from here, the sense that people are gathered not just to remember and reflect but to carry the mantle for a mission cut short. His youngest daughter, the Reverend Bernice King, would like to see a recommitment to the nonviolent movement that her father was trying to keep alive when he came to Memphis.

BERNICE KING: Perhaps that's why America is still, you know, troubled - because we started in violence. And so the seeds of violence are just, you know, increasing, and we now have a harvest of violence in our nation. And we got to repent for all of that and change our direction. And that's one thing that I think was the most radical part about what he said because people know how to deal with violence. They deal with it with violence. But most people don't know how to deal with people who are nonviolent.

CORNISH: So members of King's family and others involved in the civil rights movement are there. Debbie, can you tell us about some of the other people you've met today in Memphis?

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, a lot of people have come on pilgrimages here from all around the country. There are school groups. There are church groups. And then there are also a lot of local people who either experienced what happened here 50 years ago, or they've heard about it from their parents.

This morning I met Gloria Robinson. She's a retired Shelby County sheriff's department official. She was just 5 years old when King was killed, but she says her parents told her about it a lot. And so she really feels an ownership of this day.

GLORIA ROBINSON: I am part of the legacy. That's what it means to me. I am part of what he stood for.

ELLIOTT: Now, she and others talked of mixed emotions, noting that there had been a lot of progress, but there is also some disappointment here in Memphis that the issues that King came here for to address still persist - poverty, violence, inequality. But Robinson says King's legacy encourages her not to give up.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott speaking to us from Memphis. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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