MLK 50 Years-The Orlando Times
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was Shot Fifty Years Ago This Week-He Was Just 39 Years Old
BY REP. VAL DEMINGS
Though the stress of his work had aged him beyond his years, it is possible that he could have lived until today. This is not idle speculation, it is an important point. The Civil Rights Movement is contemporary history, which exists within a single lifetime of many people still alive today.
Last month, I joined one of those civil rights icons—U.S. Representative John Lewis, my colleague in Congress—as we toured civil rights landmarks in Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.
Our first stop was the Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ World Headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. In that church, Dr. King gave his final speech, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.’ He was assassinated the next day.
The day before he was killed, Dr. King told his audience, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” Dr. King was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign and had come to broaden the struggle for freedom. In a speech two weeks before, he had explained their goal: “to end the long night of poverty and despair that we have known in this nation.”
In Memphis, I had the privilege to hear about that poverty and despair first-hand from the dynamic and 85-years-young Elmore Nickleberry, Memphis’ longest-serving city employee. In his youth, he had joined the 1968 Sanitation Workers Strike.
That movement started when two Black sanitation workers were crushed to death by their garbage truck while seeking cover from a storm. Workers were regularly soaked in trash and filthy water—plastic bags were not used. They had nowhere to clean up, do laundry, use the restroom. They came home with maggots in their clothes. They made less than a dollar an hour. Dr. King arrived to help.
“The issue is injustice,” he said. “God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day.”
That struggle is still with us. The New York Times reported last month that a comparison of lifetime income found that “Black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America.” Class has yet to break free of race. Wrote the Times, “Black men raised in the top 1 percent — by millionaires — were as likely to be incarcerated as white men raised in households earning about $36,000.”
Justice, economics, race, history—they cannot be untangled.
The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was killed, is today the National Civil Rights Museum. We laid a wreath there in remembrance of Dr. King. There, among other artifacts, we saw the bus where Rosa Parks refused to stand.
From there the pilgrimage moved on to Birmingham, Alabama. There, we saw the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Kelly Ingram Park, where dogs and fire hoses were turned on student demonstrators in 1963. On the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, we remembered Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, all victims of hate.
From there we traveled to Montgomery. At Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we joined Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III to commemorate Dr. King’s life. We saw the Civil Rights Memorial, and First Baptist Church, where parishioners organized the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Rides.
Finally, we found ourselves in Selma. It had been nearly 53 years since Bloody Sunday, when John Lewis and other peaceful protestors were met with billy clubs and tear gas. More than five decades later, we were met with amazing grace: smiles, cheers—and police protection. Persons of all races, led by U.S. Representative John Lewis, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, singing and holding hands. God makes ALL things right.
As a Member of Congress, I stand on the shoulders of giants. As I walked across that bridge with John Lewis, I walked with a legend.
Throughout this pilgrimage, the past spoke to us. The pressure of history lays heavily on these hallowed sites, sanctified with the sweat and blood of those who were willing to lay down their lives for freedom. Now that I have seen them, it weighs on me as well. The struggle is not over. The path ahead is lighted by the path behind. As Dr. King taught us, until we are all free, none of us are free.
The day before he died, fifty years ago this week, Dr. King said, “let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”