After a morning spent reflecting at Mason Temple, the Memphis sanctuary where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his death on April 4, 1968, a congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis arrived at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.
“Each day, we must find a way to dream the dreams he dreamed,” said Lewis, a Georgia Democrat.
Lewis, a civil rights icon and long-time politician, travels to the South annually ahead of the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday clash in Selma, Alabama, where he was famously assaulted by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a nonviolent protest. On Friday, a few weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death here in Memphis, he brought a bipartisan group of colleagues on a trip organized with the help of the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington D.C.
Memphis was the first stop.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee was one of the area politicians who stood with Lewis while delivering a proclamation naming the Lorraine Motel as a site on the Civil Rights Trail, which tracks activities in more than 100 locations over 14 states, including Memphis; Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was murdered; Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded; and Wilmington, Delaware, a key player in Brown v. Board of Education.
“We have a long way to go. But as Ben Hooks used to say, our country is a work in progress,” said Alexander, referring to the longtime leader of the National Association for the the Advancement of Colored People and a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
Lewis, who met King when he was 18, spoke of the influence the civil rights leader had on his life. King called Lewis “the boy from Troy,” referring to his hometown of Troy, Alabama, and inspired him to “ never give up, never give in,” according to Lewis. “He taught me how to live, to be hopeful, to be optimistic. When he died, I think something died in all of us. Something died in America.”
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was also present, sharing remarks about uplifting not just King but the city’s own sanitation workers who “struck 50 years ago against my predecessor, who 50 years ago would not even recognize them as a human beings.”
At the Mason Temple event earlier, Elmore Nickleberry, a sanitation worker and original 1968 striker, spoke about the $50,000 grants the workers awarded by the City of Memphis in 2017, along with their $17/hour wages saying, “I think they still owe us some more.”
Strickland also responded to the recent poverty report released by the University of Memphis with assurances child poverty has dropped over the past 50 years, despite the report’s assurance of disparities.
The delegation will be traveling to the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Montgomery, ending in Selma, while adding more politicians and faith leaders to their group along the way.
Before slipping into the National Civil Rights Museum to share lunch with the delegation, Lewis was asked about his thoughts on protest as a contemporary social justice tactic, with local reporters signaling to the I-40 bridge shutdown in July 2016: “Always stand up when you see something that is not right,” Lewis said. “It’s a moral obligation. We must be vocal, optimistic, never lose a sense of hope.”
He sealed that thought by quoting King: “The time is always right to do right.”
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