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Resilience, resolve and renewed commitment to MLK's legacy

Errin Haines Whack, AP National Writer | 4/4/2018, 6:48 a.m.
Half a century ago, the enthusiastic crowd eager to hear from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. roused him from ...
Martin Luther King III hugs his sister, the Rev. Bernice King, after she spoke at the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tenn., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. The church is where their father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Half a century ago, the enthusiastic crowd eager to hear from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. roused him from his bed at the Lorraine Motel across town in a thunderstorm to Memphis' Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.

King's words rang anew during the program before his youngest child, Bernice King, addressed the audience. Calling her older brother, Martin Luther King III, to join her in the pulpit, she discussed the difficulty of publicly mourning their father — a man hated during his lifetime, now beloved around the world.

"It's important to see two of the children who lost their daddy 50 years ago to an assassin's bullet," said Bernice King, now 55. "But we kept going. Keep all of us in prayer as we continue the grieving process for a parent that we've had yet to bury."

As the world prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of King's murder, the milestone coincides with a resurgence of white supremacy, the continued shootings of unarmed black men and a parade of discouraging statistics on the lack of progress among black Americans on issues from housing to education to wealth. But rather than despair, the resounding message repeated in the building was one of resilience, resolve, and a renewed commitment to King's legacy and unfinished work.

Just as it was on King's last night in Memphis, the forecast Tuesday called for a storm to again rattle the church walls, evoking the memory of King's pronouncement that he had "been to the mountaintop," his thunderous remarks were outdone only by the evening's weather.

With an enthusiastic crowd filling Memphis' Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, the atmosphere was heavy with nostalgia Tuesday for the evening 50 years ago that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech.

A gospel singer led a rousing rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and the gathering took on the air of a mass meeting, as if the crowd could again will King from his hotel bed across town. It was in this sanctuary that he delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech the night before he was assassinated. The commemoration was part of a week of events celebrating King's legacy.

Lee Saunders, a national labor leader, recounted how that night in 1968, King made an unplanned appearance to deliver the famous speech without notes after his aides saw how passionate the crowd was: "There was one man they wanted to hear from."

But Saunders stressed that the purpose of the week's commemorations was not just to look to the past.

"Dr. King's work — our work — isn't done. We must still struggle; we must still sacrifice. We must still educate and organize and mobilize. That's why we're here in Memphis. Not just to honor our history, but to seize our future," he said.

Saunders was among the first speakers, taking the pulpit just after a video message from former President Barack Obama.

"As long as we're still trying, Dr. King's soul is still rejoicing," Obama said on the video.