Memphis Remembers Martin Luther King Jr. Memphis is holding events to remember civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 50 years ago this Wednesday.
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Memphis Remembers Martin Luther King Jr.

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Memphis Remembers Martin Luther King Jr.

Memphis Remembers Martin Luther King Jr.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Today marks 50 years since the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")

WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening. Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tenn. Police have issued an all-points bulletin for a well-dressed young white man seen running from the scene.

N. KING: That man was James Earl Ray. He shot and killed Dr. King as Dr. King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. We've had a team in Memphis all week, and there have been a lot of events in the city to commemorate the history and to reflect on King's legacy. NPR's Debbie Elliott is here with us in the studios of member station WKNO.

Debbie, it's great to have you here.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Thanks. I'm glad to be with you.

N. KING: So you've been attending a lot of these events. One of them took place last night at the Mason Temple, where Dr. King gave his "Mountaintop" speech. What was it like there?

ELLIOTT: You know, it was a full house. It was much like it probably was 50 years ago. There was this really powerful moment when part of that sermon played in the dark sanctuary. There was a single spotlight shining down on the empty pulpit. And you could hear King's voice talking about the threats against his life and how he no longer worried about them. That no longer mattered, he said, because he'd been to the mountaintop, and he'd seen the Promised Land.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH, "I'VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP")

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.

ELLIOTT: You know, you could really imagine what it must have been like in 1968. And there were people there who had experienced it back then, people like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was in the audience, and King's close confidant, former Atlanta mayor and ambassador Andrew Young. He remembered being with King the next day at the Lorraine Motel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW YOUNG: Yes, I was there when a bullet struck. But, you know, Africans say, you ain't dead till the people stop calling your name.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: And he went on to say that that bullet only released his spirit.

N. KING: Wow. Two of Dr. King's children were also there last night. What did they say about their father?

ELLIOTT: You know, it was a really rare and interesting moment. Two of his children - the Reverend Dr. Bernice King, who is the youngest, and Martin Luther King III - were both there. They both, you know, were scheduled to speak on the program. Now, for some time - the history there is that these two and other siblings have been at odds over their father's estate, so to see them in the same place was remarkable. And then when Bernice King took the pulpit, she asked her older brother to step up and join her and - where her father once stood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNICE KING: I think it's important that you see two of the children who lost their daddy 50 years ago tomorrow to an assassin's bullet.

ELLIOTT: So people in the audience were really struck by that. She went on to talk about the trauma that the family has had to deal with and that it was just overwhelming, she said. I'm going to quote her now. She said, "we continue the grieving process of a parent we've yet been able to bury."

N. KING: Fifty years later.

ELLIOTT: Fifty years later...

N. KING: It's extraordinary.

ELLIOTT: ...It's still very raw.

N. KING: The theme of this week - the city of Memphis has sort of made a to-do about this week, and the theme of this week is, where do we go from here? Now, Memphis is a city with a lot of challenges. What were people saying about where we go from here?

ELLIOTT: You know, both of the children quoted their father's famous speeches, calling for sort of a rededication to the things that he was fighting for when he was in Memphis 50 years ago - fighting racism, fighting income equality, a huge issue here in Memphis where you have a poverty rate that's double that for African-American citizens as it is for white residents, and a culture of militarism. Remember, King had just spoken out against the Vietnam War right before he came to Memphis. So there was very much a sense that that movement was cut short by his assassination. But there was also sort of this looking ahead to today. And while everybody was pointing out issues and problems that remain today, they were also talking about new movements that are emerging now, you know, whether it's students fighting gun violence, the Black Lives Matter movement protesting police brutality. And now there's even a new move to resurrect the Poor People's Campaign, which King was putting together when he was killed. Just yesterday here in Memphis, one of the organizers of that effort, the Reverend William Barber, talked about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARBER: Where do we go from here? The first thing we've got to convince America is that we need to go somewhere from here - the change they're merited. Because, right, oftentimes, if it's not a King Day or something like this, these fusion issues, they're not even discussed. We're doing - talking more about porn stars than poverty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's right. That's right.

ELLIOTT: There's also a lot of attention to nonviolent tactics. You know, when King came to Memphis, people had begun to question that civil rights strategy. And advocates here are saying, we've got to, like, start teaching those kind of nonviolent resistance methods again.

N. KING: Harkening back. Just quickly, what's happening in Memphis today?

ELLIOTT: You know, there's a lot. Labor groups and their allies will be marching downtown - sort of a modern-day version of the I am a man marches that brought King here in the first place. And then at the Lorraine Motel, there will be a day of tributes and then a formal program commemorating King that will culminate with a bell ringing from the balcony at the time that he was killed.

N. KING: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you for being here.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RE:PLUS' "MOONSCAPE")

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