Among the distinguished leaders, celebrities and residents who filled Memphis museums, churches and halls April 2–4 to commemorate 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, there was unlisted, rather outspoken guest: social media.
During MLK50 events hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum and the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), social media posters did not slouch on commentary.
The white power structure *still* despises King & everything he advocated. It’s simply politically untenable to say so out loud. But actions speak louder than words; If America truly loved King & believed in his dream, we wouldn’t still be protesting poverty & racism in 2018 https://t.co/0czEbjAu7E
— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) April 5, 2018
While the world knew King as a pastor, leader and radical thinker, the world often neglects to consider his most important role: a family man. When he fell to a sniper’s bullet April 4, 1968, at age 39, King was husband to Coretta Scott King, and father to Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice.
Acknowledging earlier she was “processing” her feelings of being in the place where her father perished, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King courageously stood on the stage of the historic Mason Temple, the site of her father’s unforgettable “Mountaintop” speech, his last. Before speaking, she called Martin III to the podium as if to stress the importance of seeing the children their father left behind. Dexter was not in attendance. Yolanda passed away in 2007.
Dr. @BerniceKing talks about the traumas she and her family have endured after inviting her brother MLKIII to join her on the pulpit #MLK50 #MLK50Forward pic.twitter.com/LlnEXi8IPC
— MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (@MLK50Memphis) April 4, 2018
After Mrs. King’s death in 2006, Bernice became CEO of The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Bernice, the youngest, was 5 when her father was murdered. A photo by Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Moneta Sleet poignantly captured her cradled in her mother’s arms during her father’s funeral at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
MLKIII recalls night he and the family learned their father had been shot #MLK50 #MLK50Forward pic.twitter.com/4BOF2zAT0K
— MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (@MLK50Memphis) April 3, 2018
While the nation learned the news of King being shot on televisions and radios, the King children’s trauma ensued when their mother broke the news.
In a trend far too common, a Memphis teen lost his life just days before MLK50 commemorative events kicked off: Dorian Harris, 17, was shot and killed by a Top Stop Shop store clerk in North Memphis March 29 after allegedly stealing a can of beer, according to the Huffington Post and other media reports. His body was found days later in a yard near the store.
As we all descend upon Memphis for #MLK50, let’s remember we still have work to do. #SayHisName https://t.co/ATluhRl1Ls
— Sharhonda Bossier (@BossierS) April 3, 2018
“What would Martin do?” was an unspoken but looming question as the city engulfed itself in a calendar of events designed to honor a man the world didn’t when he was alive. On day one of events, April 2, community members and activists gathered in protest, calling for the closing of Top Stop Shop.
Dear #Memphis: I’m here in your city. #DorianHarris should be here, too. If we don’t value black lives and believe that Dorian’s life is worth far more than an allegedly stolen beer, then we’re not authentically honoring my father. #MLK50Forward https://t.co/wzjKKRI1zj
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 3, 2018
The juxtaposition of commemorative events and the death of a black teenager kindled grief for some Memphians, exhausted from the loss of another black life, gone too soon. The search for solutions that value black life seemed eerily separate from the pomp and circumstance of MLK50.
Tonight on the cusp of #MLK50 the North Memphis community is mourning the murder of Dorian Harris. Dorian was shot in…
Posted by Tami Sawyer on Monday, 2 April 2018
I’m already suffering with the MLK50 fatigue. For those of you outside of Memphis, EVERYBODY decided to commemorate Dr….
Posted by Noel Hutchinson on Tuesday, 3 April 2018
On day two of events (April 3), activists gathered again at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center. The facility is such a powerful a symbol of mass incarceration and the criminalization of black and brown people, Memphians call the place by its address: 201 Poplar. Eight activists were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, including Manuel Duran, an undocumented Spanish-language journalist who migrated to the United States 10 years ago. He was doing his job — reporting.
While other activists were released, at presstime, Duran remained in custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Community activists and residents have called for his release via petition and raising bail money for legal support.
Spent a lot of the last few days thinking about journalist #manuelduran. He’s worked at media organizations in this…
Posted by Andrea Morales on Friday, 6 April 2018
Alongside the King children at a Mason Temple event sponsored by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the ’68 striking sanitation workers’ union, special guests included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, CNN commentator Van Jones and activist Linda Sarsour. A slew of male bishops in clergy collars and gold chains were out in full force.
Gospel great Karen Clark-Sheard sang King’s favorite song, “Precious Lord,” and left the crowd in awe. When officials announced the church’s air-conditioning was out, the crowd was nonplussed, swept up instead by Clark-Sheard’s soaring vocals.
Me after Karen Clark Sheard sent us home #MLK50 #MLK50Forward
Posted by MLK50 on Tuesday, 3 April 2018
As King was a minister, it was fitting the Church of God in Christ’s Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake would give the keynote. While he approached the lectern, one couldn’t help but notice the number of women in the frame, on the pulpit: None. COGIC does not ordain women as bishops and pastors.
Considering the vital role women played in the civil rights movement, King’s life and the sustainability of the black church, the optics didn’t seem to match the occasion.
MSM: We can’t find diverse journalists!
Me: Hold my beer.
*creates team of young, older, black, white, Latina, straight and queer journalists*
Me: I’ll take my beer back. @MLK50Memphis #MLK50 https://t.co/CEzBZ0knxu
— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) April 1, 2018
But one woman who shakes the tables in Memphis when she visits is Angela Rye, a D.C.-based attorney and political analyst who returned for the week’s festivities to honor King in her own way.
She’s baaa-aack! @angela_rye with @tamisawyer at the site of where they #TookEmDown901, formerly Nathan Bedford Forrest statue. Angela was here in February and LIT MEMPHIS UP YOU HEAR ME??? #MLK50 @MLK50Memphis pic.twitter.com/irOcd7sWz6
— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) April 3, 2018
In many corners of Memphis society, Rye is a hero. She often makes space for the grassroots activists who are often overlooked and erased from the city’s narrative for their role in amplifying issues and applying the kind of tension that makes room for elected officials to make controversial decisions like removing Confederate monuments from public parks. This time was no different. Her tribute to King was feeding breakfast to over 300 students at Oakhaven Middle School. She handily served grits wearing a white chiffon blouse and high-heeled shoes.
Angela Rye just gave the best speech of the day out chea. #MLK50 pic.twitter.com/hXjWlyiTfB
— sƃƃǝɹפ ˙H sǝɯɐſ (@PJ1AT) April 4, 2018
The Rev. William Barber kept doing his part to keep King’s ideals alive as head of the new Poor People’s Campaign. Barber underscored the campaign’s values and mission during a well-received speech in the courtyard of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, during a day of soaring speeches from civil rights, religious and social justice leaders.
Other speakers included past leaders and participants of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and elected officials including Mayor Jim Strickland (interrupted by a chanting crowd), Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell (who shaded that chanting crowd), and Gov. Bill Haslam.
While many speakers recalled their personal history with King, everybody wasn’t sold on the rainbow image of love and support. Some remembered the mass exodus of supporters King experienced in the last years of his life when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. Some also called out the hypocrisy of those who pay homage to King today.
And as I observe all of the #MLK50 stories, it’s amazing to listen to folks praise MLK who despise everything he stood for. They love to share a quote, but ignore his agenda.
— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) April 3, 2018
I just think it’s funny how Memphis out here “commemoratin” MLK’s murder, but you know damn near half these people were fine having MPD guard Confederate statues for weeks. #MLK50
— Thomas? (@tmitchtweets) April 3, 2018
Nevertheless, the week ended with a recovered Clayborn Temple bell situated at the National Civil Rights Museum ringing 39 times at 6:01 p.m. After all was said and done, folks returned to their regular lives. Well, maybe some: Manuel Duran was still locked up. Dorian Harris was still dead. The clerk who killed him was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. King’s kids gathered at home in Atlanta to host their own commemoration.
And Memphis? Well, sanitation workers quickly removed debris from the streets, leaving them spotless. Housekeepers and janitorial staff rearranged hotel rooms and restored messy beds with tightly tucked hospital corners. Fast-food workers and restaurant staff went with the (slower) flow.
So, taking a page from Dr. King’s last book Where Do We Go From Here?, where will Memphis go? Will it be toward the realization of King’s radical vision of economic justice and redistribution of wealth? Must we wait till MLK100 to find out?
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.