Remembering Dr. King
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis prepares special remembrances to educate and
inspire on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
Scenes from some of the most turbulent times in America’s history wind throughout the National Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis. Built on the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the museum honors the slain civil rights leader, but also serves to educate and inspire. Film clips, photos, and exhibits of boycotts, sit-ins, and marches showcase the many non-violent protests that would lead to the end of segregation.
In early April 1968, King traveled to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He’d been there earlier to lead a protest march to battle poor working conditions and low wages, but outside forces intervened and the march turned violent. King promised to return.
On the night of April 3rd, King gave his famous, somewhat prophetic Mountaintop speech at Mason Temple, telling those gathered he’d been to the Mountaintop and seen the Promised Land, but noted, “I may not get there with you.” The speech would be his last.
The next evening, as King prepared to depart the Lorraine Motel for dinner with his staff, he was shot on the balcony in front of Room 306.
Andrew Young, King’s friend and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, was in the parking lot below. He’d just advised King to grab a coat because it was chilly outside. King paused, as if to consider it, when the shot rang out. Young raced upstairs to find King with a gunshot wound to the chin and neck.
“It was so sudden,” he says. “The 15 minutes before he died were some of the happiest times I’d ever seen him. He was laughing, he was joking, we had a pillow fight, and he couldn’t have been more filled with joy and spirituality. And then he goes up to his room and comes out, then bang, he’s gone.”
Authorities determined the fatal shot came from a boarding house across the street. Evidence would later lead to the arrest and conviction of James Earl Ray.
The shock of King’s death reverberated around the country, sparking violence in many cities, and leaving those closest to King deeply saddened, as they tried to contemplate how to move forward without him.
“I think he’d prepared us for trying to carry on,” Young says. “Now we couldn’t carry on together, but just before we went to Memphis, I had a meeting with him and Harry Belafonte and John Conyers and we were talking about how to take the energy and vitality and movement into politics. And that’s sort of what led me into running for Congress.”
Young would go on to serve in Congress, become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and serve two terms as mayor of Atlanta.
Bernard Lafayette, Jr, who King had appointed as National Coordinator for the Poor People’s Campaign, had come to Memphis, but planned to head to Washington, D.C. the next day for a press conference. He was waiting for King the night of the Mountaintop speech to work on the press release.
“When King came back he was so euphoric and so excited, he wasn’t ready to do the press statement, “Lafayette remembers. “So we did it the next morning.”
That morning, Lafayette prepared to leave for Washington.
“The last words King said to me had nothing to do with the press statement. He said, ‘The next movement we’re going to have is to internationalize and institutionalize non-violence.’”
Lafayette arrived in Washington that evening to discover King had been shot. He would later go back to college and continue doing what King had asked him to do.
“If you’re going to institutionalize non-violence, the one place you’re going to do that is in the educational system. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 50 years.”
The museum in Memphis documents much of the civil rights movement. One display features a full-size bus with a statue of Rosa Parks portraying her refusal to give up her seat to a white man. A driver’s voice can be heard warning Parks to move to the back of the bus or face arrest. Another exhibit recounts the role of Freedom Riders who took the desegregation fight to interstate buses. That first Greyhound bus left Atlanta for Birmingham on May 14, 1961, coming under attack by a Klan-led crowd that smashed windows and slashed tires. Later, forced off the road, it was set ablaze and Freedom Rider Hank Thomas was beaten with a baseball bat. Another display showcases the sanitation workers “I Am a Man” campaign.
Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum, says the museum honors King, but also shows others were involved in creating change.
“I think it’s important that this museum demonstrates that Dr. King was but one person who was part of this movement. He was the face most of us saw, but there were thousands of people in it in some way, shape, or form.”
In marking the anniversary of King’s death, the museum has encouraged people – through its website – to take a pledge for peace and action.
A series of events are planned, culminating in a Day of Remembrance on April 4. There will be panels, shared stories, and a commemorative ceremony involving the changing of the wreath in front of Room 306.
“At 6:01 (the moment King was shot) we will do a ringing of the bells in bell towers in Memphis,” Freeman says, “and we’re hoping to coordinate bell towers across the country, 6:01 Central Time, 4:01 Pacific Time, and 7:01 Eastern Time.”
The goal is to reflect and also look to the future.
Young says that while much was accomplished with civil rights laws and changing the legal framework of the country, there’s still work to be done regarding poverty.
While mayor of Atlanta, Young worked to have the city become part of the global economy to create jobs and become less reliant on the federal government.
He attributes everything he accomplished to King’s teachings. He says that though we honor King, there’s sometimes a lack of understanding regarding the importance of faith and spirituality in King’s life.
“Dr. King said that’s all we have. We have the power of our faith and that’s a spiritual power. And we can overcome any physical violence or hatred. The only way you overcome hatred is with love. Not with greater hatred.”
King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, who heads the King Center in Atlanta, says the anniversary of her father’s death comes as a critical time in the nation and the world.
“People are struggling internally and externally with mistrust, biases, prejudices, and hate.”
She says the global community still grapples with what her father called the Triple Evils of racism, war, and poverty.