Atlanta and Memphis were silent as they listened to the sound of a bell ring 39 times this past Wednesday – the age of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the time of his death. April 4, 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the day he was fatally shot while standing on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was honoured across the US with ceremonies, as several cities reflected on his legacy.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his role in America’s civil rights movements, and for his nonviolent protests. To honour his work, schools and public buildings are named after him. King also has a national holiday, and a memorial next to the National Mall in the Washington, D.C. area. He was awarded five honorary degrees, named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963 and was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. However, King is not simply an adorned civil rights activist.
Born in 1929, the well-educated Martin Luther King Jr. was always at the forefront of civil rights. As a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, he accepted the leadership of the bus boycott in 1955, the first nonviolent black demonstration of its time. The boycott lasted 382 days, during which King was arrested, subjected to personal abuse, and had his home bombed. The boycott ended in victory as the US Supreme Court declared the laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional. Everyone could ride the bus as equals.
As he later became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organization to provide leadership for civil rights movements, King followed Gandhi in practicing nonviolence, and took his ideals from Christianity. During the next 11 years, King caught the attention of the world as he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, fought for the registration of black voters, and directed the peaceful march of 250,000 people on Washington, D.C. While at the forefront of many world-changing events, King was also arrested more than 20 times and assaulted at least four. King was radical and deeply rooted in what he believed. During a march in Chicago, he was pelted with rocks but that didn’t stop him. As he famously said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
On Wednesday, several leaders challenged the nation to not simply be “fans” of King, only remembering him as some historic figure or nostalgic memory. It was a call on the world to make the dream that King fought for his whole life a reality: justice, equality, peace, and the inclusion of all.
As Catholic priest and activist Rev. Michael Pfleger told the crowd during the commemorative ceremony on Wednesday, “evil and the forces of hate sought to stop him and shut him up only to find out that a bullet could silence his voice but not his message, nor the truth that lived in him.”
Hope is something Martin Luther King Jr. always held on to, according to Bernice King, “even when it became dark and dismal and looked like his dream became a nightmare. He said he still maintained hope because he knew that there would always be what he called a dedicated minority who would be committed to justice and peace and equity and to see young people rising up the way that they’ve been rising up.” Bernice told CNN that her father would have been excited and ready to help with movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and March for Our Lives. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, is hopeful and grateful because of the student-led movement that is working to address gun violence. Yolanda King, the icon’s 9-year-old granddaughter, spoke at March for Our Lives rally five weeks after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death was not only a celebration of his life and legacy, but a reminder to carry on the work that he started. As Bernice King wrote on Twitter, “The most authentic way to honor my father is to commit to the work of creating a more peaceful, just, humane world. Let quotes coincide with conscious efforts to eradicate poverty, militarism and racism.”
Helen Jacob | Staff Writer