By Maria Saporta
It was a day of sad memories as Atlanta marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of its hometown spiritual leader – Martin Luther King Jr. – on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
At the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King’s family gathered at King’s crypt to lay a wreath and to commemorate the actual moment of King’s death 50 years ago.
King’s three living children – Martin Luther King III with his wife Arndrea and daughter Yolanda Renee King, Dexter and Leah King, Bernice King – stood solemnly at the crypts of their parents. Their aunt – Christine King Farris, 90, who is Martin Luther King Jr.’s only living sibling, stood next to her son Isaac Farris. They were joined by other King family members, including Alveda King, the oldest daughter of A.D. King, MLK’s younger brother who died mysteriously in 1969.
The National Park Service and the King Center have had a series of events surrounding the 50th anniversary. They will continue through next Monday, April 9 – when there will be a March for Humanity – the 50th anniversary of the historic funeral procession that began at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and ended at Morehouse College. Monday’s march will terminate at MLK’s statue at the State Capitol where a public program will be held.
On a positive note, the Center for Civil and Human Rights enjoyed record attendance Wednesday with 3,679 people visiting the destination, which had free admission thanks to a generous gift from FedEx. The previous attendance high was 2,085.
“The Center is grateful for all of our corporate, individual and foundation partners who consistently support us to ensure the legacy of Dr. King is accessible to the people who visit the Center and attend our programs,” said Brian Tolleson, the Center’s interim CEO.
The Center concluded the day with a bell ringing ceremony commemorating the time that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The ceremony was done simultaneously with the King Center and institutions around the globe. The bell was rung 39 times to represent his 39 years of age.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who chairs the Center’s board, attended a special ceremony at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the very spot where King Jr. had joined his father – preaching behind the pulpit.
On Wednesday evening, it was Bernice King who stood behind that pulpit.
As she spoke of the assassination, she echoed her father’s spirit. “We are people of faith, forgiveness and love,” she said, adding their goal is to “create a more just and humane world.”
She then shared one of her favorite quotes from her father – words he wrote in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I
never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be….”
But Bernice King really channeled her father when she recited the final passage in King’s last speech known as the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. Here is a video of that moment.
At the Ebenezer program, Judy Forté, superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park, summed it up this way. “While Dr. King’s life was tragically cut short, his vision lives on…,” she said.
Bernice King also said it was important to remember the role her mother – Coretta Scott King – played in her father’s life.
“When my father was assassinated, he was one of the most hated men in America,” she said. “Now he is one of the most loved men in the world.”
It was her mother, who established the King Center shortly after her husband’s death, to continue his messages of practicing nonviolence, woring towards racial justice and fighting poverty.
At the wreath-laying ceremony in front of the crypt, Rev. Toussaint Hill of West Hunter Baptist Church, reminded everyone that King’s work is needed now more than ever.
“Our young black men are still being struck down,” he said. “Racism is still alive from the White House to the state house.”
After the ceremony, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III answered questions from journalists.
“This is a very emotional time for us,” MLK III said, adding that April 4 is always a challenging day for the family.
Bernice spoke of how she did not get to spend as much time with her father as her older siblings. “A part of me wishes I had had more time with him,” she said.
Both of the Kings said they were heartened by the re-emergence of a student movement – this time highlighting the increased gun violence in the United States.
“I believe dad and mom would be very pleased,” MLK III said of the new student movement. Then he added: “Had dad lived, we would have been on a different trajectory.”
The King Center also will commemorate its 50th anniversary in a few months, and its CEO – Bernice King – said it needs “resources, resources and more resources.”
She said “a lot of people don’t realize it takes a lot to run a campus like this.” The Center is open seven days a week and requires constant maintenance and operational support. “We need more security, especially in the climate we are in.”
Her oldest brother agreed.
“The Center is going to be 50 this year,” he said. “The Center is going to be a viable institution in this nation and world, because my mother decided for it to be a living legacy.
“We will never live in a society where these teachings are not needed,” MLK III added. “Today we need those teachings more than ever before.”