Thousands have marched and sung civil rights songs to honour the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, the “apostle of non-violence” silenced by an assassin 50 years ago.
At events ranging from a jubilant concert to a solemn wreath-laying, admirers across the country took time to both reflect on King’s legacy and discuss how his example can apply to racial and economic divides still plaguing US society.
Among the largest gatherings was a march through the Mississippi River city where the civil rights leader was shot dead on a motel balcony in 1968. Memphis police estimated a crowd of about 10,000.
The Reverend James Lawson, who invited King to Memphis 50 years ago to assist with a strike by underpaid sanitation workers, helped lead the march and said more progress was needed toward King’s goal of equality for all.
“I’m still anxious and frustrated,” said Lawson. “The task is unfinished.”
Speaking in King’s hometown of Atlanta, the Reverend Bernice King recalled her father as a great orator whose message of peaceful protest was still vital decades later.
“We decided to start this day remembering the apostle of non-violence,” she said.
As painful as losing her father was, she said she wouldn’t change history.
“Actually, I’m glad that everything happened the way that it happened because I can’t imagine the world that we live in without the contributions of Martin Luther King Junior and Coretta Scott King and the sacrifice that they made,” she said.
The commemorations prompted singer Stevie Wonder to join Twitter and post his first tweet paying tribute to King.
On April 4th, 1968 at 7:05 p.m. central time, Dr. King’s life was cut tragically short. 50 years later a need for his dream to be fulfilled is far greater than ever.
Share your dream & post your own #DreamStillLives video. Spread love…spread hope. pic.twitter.com/51BaCW78GC
— Stevie Wonder (@StevieWonder) April 5, 2018
As the Memphis march began, people locked arms or held signs as they chanted and sang songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”
“We know what he worked hard for, we know what he died for, so we just want to keep the dream going,” said marcher and rights activist Dixie Spencer.
Martin Luther King III spoke to marchers on the triple evils of poverty, racism and war.
There’s something wrong in our nation where a minimum of 48 million people are living in poverty. That’s unacceptable. We must do better. America should be embarrassed about having people living in poverty.”
In the evening, ringing bells marked the moment King was gunned down at age 39. Members of King’s family pulled a rope together to ring a bell 39 times at the pool surrounding the Atlanta crypt of King and his wife.
The crowd gathered outside Memphis’ old Lorraine Motel fell silent as the bell began to ring there. A red and white wreath was placed on the balcony where King had been standing when he was shot.
Small-time criminal James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the killing and quickly recanted, claiming he was set up. The conviction stood, and Ray died in prison in 1998.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation in honour of the slain leader, saying: “In remembrance of his profound and inspirational virtues, we look to do as Dr King did while this world was privileged enough to still have him.”
Trump has been the target of veiled criticism by some speakers at King commemorations as they complained of fraught race relations since he was elected.
In Montgomery, Alabama, where King first gained notice leading a boycott against segregated city buses, a commemorative event brought a symbol of transformation: The daughter of King’s one-time nemesis, segregationist Governor George Wallace, paid tribute to the slain civil rights leader.