This story is from the archives of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism
Despite their palpable grief on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, his children find hope.
Standing Tuesday in the very space — the pulpit of Mason Temple — where King delivered his last speech 50 years ago, his youngest child, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, and his namesake, the Rev. Martin Luther King III, lifted up not just their father’s legacy, but the bright future of activism.
She thanked the Rev. William Barber for reviving her father’s last mission, the Poor People’s Campaign. His son said he couldn’t say enough about the Black Lives Matter movement. Gender equality, he predicted, would come through the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
And last month’s March For Our Lives against gun violence, at which his daughter Yolanda spoke, has the power to transform the political landscape.
“We’re going to see folks come to the polls like never before,” Martin Luther King III said.
In a hot, crowded Mason Temple, with ominous winds whipping outside, the trappings of the black church tradition, and the adoption of King rhetoric and tenor transported the audience, which was peppered with locally and nationally-known dignitaries, to exactly 50 years before when Dr. King delivered his “Mountaintop” speech.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton sent video messages honoring King and the sanitation workers, whose demands for fair pay and safer working conditions drew the Baptist preacher to town. Obama encouraged the audience to “keep marching” and Clinton noted that 50 years later “we are still struggling to form that more perfect union.”
Continuing the pattern of call-and-response that echoed throughout the night, Saunders and the audience quoted Fannie Lou Hamer: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
President of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and son of Cesar Chavez, Paul Chavez, said that his father was one of the beneficiaries of Dr. King’s activism. Although they never met, his father was inspired by King’s commitment to nonviolence when he began his 25-day fast in February 1968.
“(My father) knew that the farm workers like the sanitation workers were fighting for more than fair wages, but respect,” Chavez said.
The loss of their father was just the first in a series of deaths that still haunt the family, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King said.
A year after King was shot on the Lorraine Motel balcony, her uncle was found dead in a pool, under suspicious circumstances. Her uncle’s death was followed by the shooting death of her grandmother Alberta King while she played the organ at church and then the death of her mother Coretta Scott King.
“The trauma we have dealt with as a family has been overwhelming,” she said.
King acknowledged the absence of her brother, Dexter King. “He is dealing with the grief in ways that are different from me and Martin, so I ask that you keep all of us in prayer as we continue to go through the grieving process of a parent we’ve yet to be able to bury,” she said, putting the word bury in air quotes.
Music from the Southwind High School choir and gospel singer Kierra Sheard lightened the mood, but King’s spirit hung heavy in the air, especially when Karen Clark-Sheard sang King’s favorite song, “Precious Lord.”
With the lights dimmed and a single spotlight focused on the pulpit, King’s sonorous voice and the last, prescient, words of his “Mountaintop” speech filled the church.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place,” King said.
“But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
While all the speakers did their best to approximate King’s cadence, it was his baby girl who channeled her father, not just with the perfect recitation of his words, but with earnestness and emotion.
“We have not, in 50 years, dealt with as Dad challenged us, to deal with the last vestiges of racism,” she said.
“We must repent, because Daddy challenged us to deal with a second evil — poverty — which we have refused to confront in this nation, and I thank God for the presence of the Rev. Barber in resurrecting that Poor People’s Campaign. We have to repent and do better in this nation.”
“Finally, we have to repent because of the third evil that my father identified called militarism. Militarism has robbed us of the necessary resources to address the social injustices and the social ills and the social discrepancies in our nation.
She recalled the title of King’s last sermon, which he’d planned to deliver at his church in Atlanta: “America may go to hell.”
“As I look at the landscape of our world today, America may still go to hell. Fifty years later, I’m here to declare and decree not only must America to be born again, but it’s time for America to repent.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.