Memphis (AFP) – Americans on Wednesday marked 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, a day seared into the national consciousness that transformed the civil rights leader into a symbol of the fight for racial equality.
In a country still torn over issues of race and class demonstrators rallied in Memphis, Tennessee where the pastor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner was slain aged 39 on the balcony of his motel by a white supremacist sniper on April 4, 1968, as well as in Washington where he delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
“When we look at the state of race relations, we’ve made dramatic progress in 50 years — but we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” King’s activist son, Martin Luther King III, told ABC’s Good Morning America from Memphis, where he was taking part in a symbolic march.
“I think he’d be disappointed with some of the discourse that we see,” said King III, although he added that his father would “be very excited” by today’s activist movements including Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo campaign for women’s rights, and student-led movements against gun violence.
“He would know that we as a nation can, must and will do better.”
Now lionized for his heroic campaigns against racism and segregation, King was a controversial, radical activist who with a mantra of non-violence also ardently campaigned against poverty, income equality and US wars abroad.
His January 15 birthday is celebrated as a US holiday and a 30-foot statue in his likeness towers in Washington as a tribute to his life and work.
On the anniversary’s eve prominent civil rights activist Jesse Jackson — speaking from Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where an assassin’s bullet struck King — said “the sore is still raw” from the fatal shooting.
“It’s always a source of pain and anxiety,” Jackson said. “You take the scab off and the sore is still raw. It happened so suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, on the way to dinner. He’ll always be 39.”
But his legacy, Jackson said, survives in the hearts, minds and actions of demonstrators today wielding flags of racial, social and economic justice.
“You can fight to stop the loop of violence,” Jackson urged those activists. “We are much too blessed to be so violent as a nation.”
Today’s young Americans “must have the rational sense to choose non-violence and to go another way,” he said.
– ‘Non-violence’ –
King catapulted into the national spotlight by taking the lead on a year-long boycott against racial segregation on local buses.
He is perhaps best known for his August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech he delivered to some 250,000 demonstrators in Washington as part of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
One year later he became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner at 35 for his non-violent resistance.
Prior to King’s assassination that triggered both grief and days of riots in more than 100 cities, the reverend had traveled to Memphis to support sanitation workers in the southern state striking for better working conditions and higher pay.
Elmore Nickleberry, now 86, is today one of the last participants in that strike still on the job with the city’s sanitation department.
“When he got killed — the mood was mighty bad when he got killed. People started hollering, started crying,” Nickleberry told AFP.
He remembers that poignant moment of tension and pain but Nickleberry says it’s King’s sermon of non-violence that lives on.
“He was a man of marching, he was a man that was non-violent,” the sanitation worker said. “That’s what I remember today.”
“That’s what I believe in: non-violence.”
US President Donald Trump also paid homage to the civil rights icon by proclaiming April 4, 2018 a day to honor King.
“It is not government that will achieve Dr. King’s ideals, but rather the people of this great country who will see to it that our Nation represents all that is good and true, and embodies unity, peace, and justice,” said a statement from the president.
Trump has been sharply criticized for divisive comments targeting Mexican and Muslim immigrants, and for refusing to condemn outright a violent white supremacist rally that ended in bloodshed.
“As a united people, we must see Dr. King’s life mission through and denounce racism, inhumanity, and all those things that seek to divide us,” the president’s proclamation said.