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#MLK50—Marking the 50th Anniversary of King’s assassination

By Donna Muhammad and Rhodesia Muhammad | Last updated: Apr 11, 2018 - 9:19:35 AM

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MEMPHIS—Thousands flocked to Memphis under the banner of #MLK50 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights martyr Martin Luther King, Jr.


Just as they did in 1968 on April 3, storm clouds gathered. There were thunderstorm and tornado warnings, coupled with a 20-degree drop in temperature within a few hours. But the weather did not blunt attendance at the many scheduled evening events.

At historic Clayborn Temple Church, home of the iconic “I Am a Man” sanitation workers photograph and where civil rights and labor activists organized, actor LeVar Burton was guest host for the Indie Memphis program, Let Freedom Sing, which highlighted the role music played in the civil rights struggle. Along with performances by the IRIS Orchestra and the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, there was a stirring rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” by Frank Phillips accompanied by spoken word artist Nubia.

Later that evening, a crowd filled Mason Temple where Dr. King delivered his final speech. “I AM 2018: Revisiting the Mountaintop” featured words by Dr. King’s children, Martin Luther King, III and Dr. Bernice King; as well as former Ambassador Andrew Young, who was on the balcony with Dr. King when he was killed. Paul Chavez, oldest son of labor leader Cesar Chavez, was present and videotaped messages from former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were presented.

(R) Min. Farrakhan at The National Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Motel on balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot. Photo: James Muhammad
Dr. Bernice King shared how her father called her grandmother with the title of his next speech, “America May Go to Hell,” slated for delivery April 7, 1968.

She reflected on the current American landscape and warned the country may still go to hell. “So, 50 years later I am here to declare that America must be born again and it is time for America to repent,” she said.

In contrast to the celebratory mood of some April 3-4 events, organizer Al Lewis and activists held a “Rolling BLOCK Party.” “We didn’t want speeches, banquets, programs and parties. We always try to do something unique, smart and unpredictable,” said Mr. Lewis. Their acts of civil disobedience, in Dr. King’s honor, included blocking FedEX distribution to protest unfair global commerce, gathering outside the Memphis jail, and Fight for $15 sidewalk protests on behalf of detained immigrants. Some were arrested and, according to Mr. Lewis, brutalized. “Pulling their hair, pulling their breasts and nothing illegal was being done. One reporter is going to be deported. Here we are doing the same thing as Dr. King and the city of Memphis is acting like Bull Conner and the other oppressive regimes of the city,” he said.

The National Civil Rights Museum and Masjid Al-Mu’minun co-sponsored a program a week before the major commemoration. The museum is housed on the site of the historic Lorraine Motel where Dr. King, Jr. was fatally shot. The program, “A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Faith Communities United, Re-examining, Renewing the Spirit of the Vision, the Legacy, the Destiny,” included Dr. LaSimba Gray, New Sardis Baptist Church; Student Minister Anthony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam; State Representative Johnnie Turner; Prof. Ayesha Mustafaa, Muslim Journal newspaper editor; Rev. Earle Fisher, Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church and Imam Rashad Sharif, Masjid Al-Mu’minun.

State Rep. Turner said many of the Black-owned businesses Dr. King directed Blacks to support in Memphis, such as Tri-State Bank and a life Insurance company, were either out of business or no longer Black-owned. She implored the audience to redirect Black dollars to Black businesses. “Our unity is more powerful than an atomic bomb. We’ve tried everything except unity,” she said. “Economics is warfare. Those with the 99 percent are not interested in giving it back. We are going to have to take it,” added Anthony Muhammad.

On April 4, thousands marched alongside the original sanitation workers, some of whom are still employed by the city Sanitation Department. Also marching was Michael Clark, who has been with the department for 36 years, and has not had a raise in over a decade. There were performances by rapper Common and Sheila E, with speeches by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Al Sharpton and others. There is still much work to be done, said speakers.

According to a 2016 USA Today report, median family income in Memphis in 1970 was $55,369 versus $45,791 in 2016. Those living in poverty rose from 21 percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 2016 with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, up from 5 percent in 1970. 

According to a Washington Post poll, less than a third of Blacks see the U.S. as having realized the vision outlined in Dr. King’s I Have A Dream speech in 1963. It also found economic inequality and a lack of financial progress may be contributing factors to the lack of fulfillment of Dr. King’s vision.

Last year, United for a Fair Economy’s annual report, “State of the Dream 2017: Mourning in America,” found the overall wealth gap in the United States has widened in the past 30 years. For every dollar owned by the average White family in the U.S., the average family of color has less than a dime. White households have about $141,900 median wealth, while Black families have just $11,000 median wealth and Latino households have $13,700 median wealth.

In Atlanta, Ga., where Dr. King was born, experts say, equal employment appears to be better, which they say is attributed to a succession of Black mayors and historically Black universities. However, state labor officials say Georgia has the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

“Dr. King’s dream has turned into a nightmare,” said Abdul Sharrieff Muhammad of the Nation of Islam mosque in Atlanta. “Not only is the unemployment rate high, but when you drive down MLK Avenue, all you see is homeless people.”

“There used to be $250 million for shelters for poor people and now it’s only $7 million,” Min. Sharrieff Muhammad added.

Demetric Muhammad, author of “Was Dr. King a Black Muslim,” said Dr. King’s message was reduced to a dream because Dr. King had revolutionary ideas that America’s leaders feared.

“J. Edgar Hoover wrote in his memoirs that Dr. King could be a Messiah for the people if he ever gave up his obedience to liberal advisors and ideas,” Demetric Muhammad asserted. “And in 1966, Dr. King met with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in February, and that signaled that he was leaving his commitment to ‘White liberal ideas’ and solutions.”

Harry Belafonte, a King confidante, said Dr. King was having second thoughts on integration being the key to equality. He described it as fear of integrating into a burning house.