“If you’re serious, you should be vigilant,” said retired college professor Clarence Christian, signaling a Frederick Douglass quote: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Christian was among about 250 people gathered in an auditorium at the National Civil Rights Museum for its April 4 commemoration program marking the 51st year since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the site of the museum, the former Lorraine Motel. A persistent afternoon rain steered the event indoors.
“To be at the 49th, the 51st, feels more important than the years that have the hype, if you’re serious about justice,” Christian said. He also works with Lynching Sites Project and is a member of same fraternity as King, Alpha Phi Alpha.
The event included remarks from the Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, close associates of King in the 1960s, as well as local officials, such as Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. Dr. Omid Safi, director of Islamic Studies Center at Duke University, was the keynote speaker.
“It takes a movement, not a moment” Safi said to the audience. “If we love Martin, and we do, we gotta speak the truth. My beloved community, America is and has always been, a mixture of a dream and a nightmare. If someday we want it to not be a nightmare for some of us, then we gotta build that America because that America has never existed, and it doesn’t exist now.”
Safi spoke about love and justice and how King centered those ideals in his work. He described the eulogy King delivered at the funeral for four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963.
“He said, ‘We got to be concerned not about who murdered them, but about the system, the institution, the philosophy [that] produced this hate.”
Irene Weaver was pregnant with her daughter and living at Foote Homes, a public housing project in South Memphis, 51 years ago when King was killed. She remembers walking out her back door and across the street to R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home with her sisters, where they were able to view King’s body before he was flown back to Atlanta. On Thursday, Weaver arrived at the National Civil Rights Museum after 6:01 p.m., the moment when the bullet struck King. A commemorative minute of silence was observed inside, and as the rain broke, the ceremony wrapped up outside where a wreath was placed on the balcony.
Weaver was carrying a round poster with Dr. King’s image that she’s had for years, sheathed in a plastic bag. “The memory is there,” she said. “It’s an important part of history. We must take time to remember it every year.”
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 Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.