Published January 13, 2015
On the 40th anniversary of his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was remembered Friday in the city where he died as a man who came to Memphis "to lead us to a better way."
Presidential candidates, civil rights leaders, labor activists and thousands of citizens came together to honor King for his devotion to racial equality and economic justice.
King was cut down by a rifle slug on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, while helping organize a strike by Memphis sanitation workers, then some of the poorest of the city's working poor.
Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represented the workers then and now, marched in a steady rain Friday from their downtown headquarters to the motel.
A line of several hundred people carrying umbrellas in a steady rain set off on the mile-long route.
"Dr. King was like Moses," said Leslie Moore, 61, a sanitation worker in 1968 who is still on the job. "God gave Moses the assignment to lead the children of Israel across the Red Sea. He sent Dr. King here to lead us to a better way."
Baxter Leach, 68, a retired sanitation worker, also took part in the strike, which marked the beginning of the end for white-only domination of government and civil affairs in Memphis. Before the strike, black sanitation workers labored long hours for little pay and could be fired at the whim of white bosses.
"We honor this day. We march," Leach said, adding that King helped all Americans. "He was for poor folks. He wasn't for just one color. He was for all colors."
Marchers packed the courtyard in front of the motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, for a rally after their mile-long walk, standing shoulder to shoulder under a sea of multicolored umbrellas.
Speakers urged the crowd to follow King's example by working to help the poor, improve public schools and provide housing for the homeless.
Attending rallies isn't enough, said Dwight Montgomery, local director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national civil rights group King helped create.
"After the dust has settled, after the cameras are gone ... what will this crowd do?" Montgomery asked.
In Atlanta, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III placed a wreath at the national historic site where their father and mother, Coretta Scott King, are buried. They were expected to travel to Memphis later in the day.
A special exhibit opened at the historic site chronicling the final days and hours before King's death, as well as his funeral procession through his hometown five days later.
In a statement, President Bush said that 40 years ago, "America was robbed of one of history's most consequential advocates for equality and civil rights. ... We have made progress on Dr. King's dream, yet the struggle is not over."
Presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain were scheduled to take part in later Memphis events that were to include an afternoon "recommitment march" and the laying of wreaths at the motel. Sen. Barack Obama spoke of King from Indiana.
The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 at the former motel, which now holds most of its exhibits tracing the history of America's struggle for equal rights. The museum also encompasses the flophouse across the street from which confessed killer James Earl Ray admitted firing the fatal shot. Ray died in prison in 1998.
King was a champion of nonviolent protest for social change, and his writings and speeches still stir older followers and new ones alike, said Vivian, who helped organize lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and rode on a "freedom bus" through Mississippi.
"The world still listens to Martin," he said. "There are people who didn't reach for him then who reach for him now. They want to know this man. What did he say? What did he think?"
Other tributes were being held around the country. In Congress, House and Senate leaders and lawmakers who once worked with the civil rights leader marked the anniversary with a tribute Thursday in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.
"Because of the leadership of this man we rose up out of fear and became willing to put our bodies on the line," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a companion of King in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
In Indianapolis, Ethel Kennedy was scheduled to make brief remarks during a ceremony Friday evening at what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Her late husband Robert Kennedy gave a passionate speech there the night of King's assassination that was credited with quelling violence in the city.
Memphis has also been in the news lately because of the success of the Memphis Tigers, who play UCLA in the NCAA men's basketball Final Four on Saturday. Coach John Calipari had copies of King's "I Have a Dream" speech for his players to read after practice Wednesday, along with a King biography, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson met the team for a personal history lesson.