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VOL. 133 | NO. 70 | Friday, April 6, 2018

MLK50 Observances Come With Appeals, Memories

By Bill Dries

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The way National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman described it as the MLK50 commemorations began this week, the church bells would cascade when they rang Wednesday, April 4, starting at 6:01 p.m. – the moment Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot 50 years ago.

The temporarily relocated church bell from Clayborn Temple, the gathering point for daily marches during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that brought King to Memphis, would ring first in the museum’s courtyard – just a few yards from the balcony where he was shot.

“It’s going to ripple because back in 1968 that’s how we learned about things,” Freeman said Monday as she talked of nearly 200 places in the world that would be part of the ceremony. “We didn’t get a text on our cellphones in 1968 all at the same time.”

The bells citywide rang two minutes later and those nationally four minutes later and internationally six minutes later. The international sites included the Vatican, and King’s youngest daughter, Rev. Bernice King, was instrumental in the Vatican’s participation after her recent meeting with Pope Francis.

A perhaps-unintended ripple effect began before the second tolling of the bells citywide, as hundreds of iPhones were held high in the museum plaza from the courtyard beneath the balcony onto South Main Street – all recording the sights and sounds of the moment, including a crowd of several thousand people.

Traffic on Downtown’s south end was a bit of an adventure Wednesday, though it wasn’t gridlocked. One could hear the occasional bleating of sirens and buzz of helicopters, both on the part of Memphis police adjusting their presence and in effect turning on and off parts of streets, at times even barring pedestrians.

On the stages at the two largest gatherings of the day there was rapping, church choirs, defiance, and proselytizing for God and political goals, but most of all for different views and images of the King legacy and whose view is the closest to the real King.

“You have every right to question who I am,” began former Polish ambassador Ryszard Schnepf from the museum stage, who explained that King heavily influenced his country’s Solidarity movement. “We wanted to live free and with equal opportunity.”

Rev. James Lawson, the architect of nonviolent resistance and soul force for social action, vowed not to repeat too much of what had been said before him at the museum.

He benefited from being one of the few strategists on the bill to talk strategy. Lawson quibbled with calling King a “civil rights leader.” He said that is a political term. He described King as “the Moses or the Jesus of the 21st century, at least for Western civilization.”

“Reverend William Barber speaks to a crowd of a few thousands gathered to march from ASFCME’s Union Avenue location to Mason Temple commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

For Lawson, the nonviolent philosophy includes “no more bits and pieces of violence in our speech.”

“Voting is OK,” he added, “but voting is not of any value unless it is preceded by nonviolent campaigns.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson, also speaking from the balcony where King was shot, talked of the final moments before and after the gunshot – reciting specific names and actions.

Several thousand people under banners of unions and civil rights organizations marched peacefully earlier Wednesday from the headquarters of the American Federal of State County and Municipal Employees at Beale Street and Danny Thomas Boulevard to Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.

The march from the headquarters of the union that has represented city sanitation workers since their 1968 strike was one of several events across the city 50 years to the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

U.S. Senator and 2016 Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders was among those who called for political unity at a rally before the march.

Sanders described King as “very revolutionary” and “seeking to transform this country.”

“We are the richest country in the history of the world. People should not be working for starvation wages,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to let corporate America destroy the trade union movement. We are not going to continue to allow the United States of America to be the only major nation on the Earth that does not guarantee health care for all people as a right. We are not going to allow our public schools to wither away and teachers to work for inadequate salaries.”

Rev. William Barber, leader of the new Poor People’s Campaign – the successor to the movement King was organizing for an occupation of Washington at the time of his assassination – said King’s last speech, the night before his assassination, was a “call to action.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was among those who called for political unity at a rally before the march. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“What he said then is what we must do now,” Barber added. “Memphis must stop being a tomb and be a resurrection.”

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez was among the speakers who urged a big voter turnout in this year’s midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.

“We need an economy that works for everyone,” he said. “It’s not about left or right. It’s about right or wrong.”

He also adapted a slogan from 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“When some people go low, we go vote,” he said.

At about the same time in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum, local activist Earle Fisher also talked about a local nonpartisan coalition focused on increasing voter registration and turnout in the midterm elections.

“This is much bigger than voter registration. We have to organize and mobilize,” Fisher said. “Voting is not a magic wand. But it is a priceless piece in the puzzle of our political empowerment. … If someone is in office on Main Street or the White House and they don’t represent us, it’s time to vote them out.”

Rhodes College students and Calvary Episcopal Church parishioners dedicated a new historical marker at the corner of B.B. King Boulevard and Adams Avenue, marking the location of the slave market owned by Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The new marker stands a few yards from a 1955 Shelby County Historical Society marker that notes the corner was the site of Forrest’s home but makes no mention of his past as a slave trader.

During a noon service in the church that drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 700, the names of 72 slaves sold at the market were read as the church bell tolled. The names were those that Rhodes students found in the Shelby County archives and other historical records. In many instances they were a first name and an age. The names are thought to be a fraction of those Forrest sold in one of the city’s longest-running slave-trading businesses before the Civil War. They included the names of children sold individually.

The marker is the latest to go up in the city without going through either the Shelby County Historical Commission or the Tennessee Historical Commission. Calvary, which recently bought the corner lot from the city of Memphis, partnered with Rhodes College and the National Park Service on the new marker.

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