Rev. William Barber made sure to be clear that this was not a celebration.
“I’ve been going to these places where blood was shed ‘cause I’m trying to hear what the blood is saying,” he said at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church during a rally on Tuesday afternoon. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, is the architect of the Moral Mondays movement.
“When you go to places where the martyr lived, you don’t go for celebration, you go for consecration. You go get instructions from blood on what we need to be doing with our lives.”
The rally, which also included a talk from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was part of a national day of action honoring the vision for economic justice that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had for poor people and workers.
After a morning spent with local organizers, Barber leaned over the pile of notes on the pulpit while reflecting on what brought him and his message of justice to Memphis, the city where the civil rights movement lost its most prolific leader 49 years ago.
“We have an obligation to finish what he started,” Barber said.
At LaRose Elementary School
Later that afternoon at LaRose Elementary in South Memphis, students from the school’s art club sat in the cafeteria and listened to organizer Keedran “TNT” Franklin speak about the Fight for $15 campaign. The students made posters with messages of self-affirmation and calls for economic justice while learning about the history of protest movements and King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance. Many of the children have relatives who have joined the campaign, which calls for living wages and a union for workers in l0w-paid occupations such as fast food and home health care.
After the lesson, the students filed out of the cafeteria, posters in hand, and marched along E.H. Crump Boulevard.
Outside City Hall…
The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter held a teach-in as the sun hung high in the sky. Facilitators led conversations around the need of collective liberation in King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech where he outlined “the two Americas.”
One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits.
In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist.
In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
Speakers, musicians and prayer preceded another appearance by Barber. He quoted what has been cited as Dr. King’s favorite Bible verse: Hebrews 10:39, before leading the Fight for $15 march down Main Street:
Several hundred marchers, including people who traveled to Memphis from St. Louis, Nashville and New Orleans, made their way toward the National Civil Rights Museum as the Talladega College marching band played.
At 6:01 p.m., the exact time when the fatal shot that killed King rang out, the marchers stopped for a moment of silence.
Light from a sun dipping behind the Mississippi River, the energy from a drum line and megaphoned chants filled the streets as patrons and employees of Main Street establishments stopped to witness what was happening.
At the National Civil Rights Museum
The procession came to an end at the National Civil Rights Museum where helicopters zoomed overhead and organizers dropped D.I.Y banners over buildings to signal a work in progress rather than a halted dream. Barber recalled King’s “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech and asked those gathered to hold hands.
“He said “ I may not get there with you…” That means he had faith in us. That we weren’t just going to start talking about his awards and always talking about what Dr. King did,” Barber said.
“Dr. King is dead, but we are his children. And it’s time for us to stand up.
“He said these words on April 3rd: ‘Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.’ We cannot go into the 50th year of his death and have another celebration. We must have a movement.”