Remembering MLK

People in Richmond and across the nation pause to reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death

Free Press staff, wire reports | 4/6/2018, 7:15 a.m.
On the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago, tens of thousands of people gathered at ...

On the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago, tens of thousands of people gathered at small and large events in Richmond and other cities on Wednesday to mourn his death, celebrate his life and rekindle his struggle for economic and social justice.

In Richmond, Virginia Union University hosted “MLK50: Moment of Remembrance” with the Office of Mayor Levar M. Stoney to discuss “Where do we go from here?”

In Memphis, where Dr. King was gunned down at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968, people wrapped themselves in coats and hats in the unseasonably cool weather to rally with signs bearing the slogan of the striking sanitation workers Dr. King had gone to Memphis to support: “I AM A MAN.”

They gathered outside the offices of the union that represents the sanitation workers and other government workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local Union 1733, on Memphis’ famed Beale Street.

On Wednesday, the crowd was composed mostly of workers, but also included civil rights activists, pastors and union workers from Atlanta to Los Angeles who came to remember Dr. King’s efforts to improve conditions for the trash collectors.

“If it weren’t for Dr. King, we’d still be on strike,” said Elmore Nickleberry.

At 86, Mr. Nickleberry is the city’s longest-serving employee who still drives a truck for the sanitation department. He was among the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers who went on strike in February 1968 after two garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a truck’s malfunctioning compactor.

Frustrated by years of shoddy treatment, the African-American workers demanded better pay and benefits and safer working conditions.

Mr. Nickleberry said the city finally allowed the workers to unionize and raised their pay two weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, reflecting the impact of his death.

Cleophus Smith, 75, a sanitation worker for 50 years, said it was important to pay tribute to Dr. King. Mr. Smith took part in a mile and a half walk in honor of his hero, scoffing at those who urged him to ride a shuttle bus.

“I am thinking of the legacy Dr. King left for us to carry on,” Mr. Smith said as he scanned a sea of union banners. “We’re determined to carry it on.”

In Indianapolis, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a key student leader in the Civil Rights Movement, recalled being in that city when the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced Dr. King’s death during a presidential campaign rally.

“I cried. I lost a friend. I lost a great brother. I lost my leader,” Rep. Lewis told a crowd at Indianapolis’ Landmark for Peace Memorial in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. “If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King Jr., I don’t know what would have happened to our nation.”

Others assembled in Atlanta, where Dr. King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice A. King, moderated an awards ceremony in her father’s honor.

Rev. King, the youngest of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s four children, was only 5 when her father was killed. Early Wednesday morning, she sent out a personal message on Twitter: “Such an honor to have had you as a father and to still have you as a teacher. I greatly admire your courage and strength to love, and I learn from you daily. In the words of Maya Angelou, I ‘can be and be better because you existed.’ Thank you. Miss you.”