Fifty years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, cities across the United States are honoring him Wednesday with ceremonies and performances, as well as reflections on what today’s civil rights advocates can do to carry forward his legacy.
Solemnity will be the order of the evening, when sites across the country will ring bells 39 times, symbolizing the civil rights leader’s age at his death. Bells will toll around the time King was shot.
Speakers have been challenging listeners to push for justice and equality, as they expect King would have today.
“If even then, the future — not the past — was what made us a movement, I believe we carry on the King tradition best by focusing on the here and now as King did as he led the civil rights movement,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s non-voting delegate to Congress, said just after noon at a wreath-laying ceremony at his memorial near the National Mall.
Some members of King’s family began the morning by taking a similar message to social media and TV audiences.
“The most authentic way to honor my father is to commit to the work of creating a more peaceful, just, humane world,” his youngest child, Bernice King, now 55, tweeted. “Let quotes coincide with conscious efforts to eradicate poverty, militarism and racism (privilege + power = oppressive policies + culture). #MLK50Forward #MLK”
Arndrea King, wife of the slain civil rights leader’s son Martin Luther King III, told CNN she thought her late father-in-law “would be so charged by all of the movements that are underway today,” including efforts to quell gun violence and #MeToo campaigns against abuse of women.
“There are so many people that are on the move doing wonderful work right now, that I can’t help but think that he would be inspired by what we’re seeing around the nation and the world,” she said.
Perhaps the grandest, most sweeping memorial Wednesday is in Memphis, where King was slain while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
The daylong tribute there — featuring speeches, videos, and singing and spoken-word performances — is largely being held in the courtyard of the motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
Some people at the Memphis event held signs reading, “I am a man.” They were reminiscent of the signs carried in 1968 in that city by sanitation workers whose strike King had come to support.
Among those slated to speak there is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of only two surviving members of King’s entourage on the day he was shot.
Here’s a look at some of the events planned to honor King’s legacy:
– Tributes saluting King in the courtyard of the Lorraine Motel started in the morning, and are available on live stream starting at 10:30 a.m. ET.
– A commemorative ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. ET on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It will include an interfaith liturgy, musical tributes, and a ceremonial changing of the wreath outside Room 306.
— The Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest and activist against street violence on Chicago’s South Side, will give the keynote address around 6:45 p.m. ET.
– At 7:01 p.m. ET, the bell from the historic Clayborn Temple will ring 39 times as part of the International Moment of Reflection.
– At 8 p.m. ET, an “evening of storytelling” will be held at the nearby Crosstown Concourse. Featuring civil rights leaders such as Jackson and US Rep. John Lewis, it will explore how past activism has fed into current movements.
– Events in the nation’s capital started at 7 a.m. ET with a morning prayer vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
– A silent march then took place from the King memorial to the National Mall, site of the hourslong ACT to End Racism Rally.
– The ACT to End Racism Rally will last into the late afternoon, featuring speakers, including religious leaders, artists, and activists.
– In the city of his birth, the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize was awarded Wednesday morning to lawyers Benjamin Ferencz, for his work prosecuting German Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, and Bryan Stevenson, for his work to make mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger unconstitutional.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump was on hand to introduce Stevenson as someone who “shines like a beacon in the dark.”
– The Ebenezer Baptist Church choir sang the National Anthem and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” early Wednesday afternoon before a game between the Washington Nationals and the host Atlanta Braves.
– At 7:01 p.m. ET, a bell at the King center will toll for each year of King’s life. Members of his family also will lay a wreath at the crypts of King and his widow, Coretta Scott King.