Memphians reflect on Dr King's service and sacrifice

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A year-long commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ahead of the 50th anniversary of his death, began Tuesday.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017, marked 49 years since Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.

In the next year as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death in 2018, Memphis (led by the National Civil Rights Museum) will celebrate the life and legacy of MLK, honoring the civil rights icon and striving to further his legacy of service and positive change.

The MLK50 Commemoration started at 3 p.m. at the Lorraine Motel at National Civil Rights Museum as hundreds gathered to remember Dr. King. The event featured keynote speaker Gwendolyn E. Boyd, president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Museum president Terri Lee Freeman, Lee Saunders of National AFSCME, indigenous community activist Kathy Sanchez, Rev. Dr. William Barber, and Rev. Dr. Rosalyn Nichols were also there.

As many look forward to the future, the speakers wanted those in attendance to never forget about the past.

"I want us to always remember what happened," Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd said.

Boyd said the key to moving forward is learning from the lessons Dr. King's life can teach us.

"They were persistent, and as we see that in every march and every sit in, they didn't just do it once. They did it over and over again until the message got across or they won a victory," Boyd said. "Dr. King was killed because he was fighting for freedom."

Boyd said she hopes people understand one thing about Dr. King.

"That people really do understand what his life was all about. That he, everyday, gave 110 percent. It wasn't about him," Boyd said.

Elementary students march

Several events took place across the city on Tuesday to honor MLK. Students at one Memphis elementary school joined the movement through protest.

La Rose Elementary School encouraged students to take time out of class to march in solidarity with "Fight for 15" and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The students marched around the school carrying signs that read, 'I am the future' and 'Fight for Justice.'"

Teachers at the school used the opportunity to teach students about the history of protesting and how Martin Luther King Jr. used and encouraged peaceful protest as a way to change the world.

"They were demanding unions back then in 1968, and we are demanding the same thing now. We are out here telling students about history and the present and how those connect," art teacher Dominic Vanhorn said.

SLIDESHOW: Take a tour of #MLK50 commemoration events

Fight For 15

A group of low-wage workers spent Tuesday marching for better wages. It's a movement members said is very similar to the sanitation worker strike that brought MLK to Memphis in 1968.

Fight For 15 is a group working to get workers a higher hourly minimum wage.

Members of the group marched from Memphis City Hall to Lorraine Motel. Those members said they wanted to honor MLK by demonstrating in his honor for a movement they believe he would support if he were alive today.

More than 100 people joined the Fight For 15 march.

"It means a lot to us, because Martin Luther King had a dream and we're still fighting the dream. We're low wage workers. We get paid a little to nothing. Martin Luther King came here for sanitation workers who got paid a little of nothing," protester Ashley Cathey said.

For home health care worker Genevieve Sneed, it's about a better life.

"A better life for us and that's what he fought for and that is what I want," Sneed said.

Sneed was one of just hundreds of people to attend the march. She said was marching for equal pay because she doesn't make enough to support her family.

"I'm living proof that what I make is not a living wage," Sneed said.

MLK50 breakfast event

Reverend Jesse Jackson and Terri Freeman of National Civil Rights Museum delivered speeches Tuesday morning at the first MLK50 event of the day. The two leaders spoke about faith and social justice and how King's legacy shapes and influences lives to this day.

"It's a day that we should really take the opportunity to look back, reflect. Reflect on what Dr. King gave while he was alive, but then. of course, look at the sacrifice that was made," Freeman said.

Freeman's message was getting back to work on what Dr. King cared about the most -- social justice.

"Social justice ministry, a ministry that was going to actually help the people," Freeman said.

To do that, the event also incorporated a teach-in so they could better understand the steps necessary to make this goal a reality.

"I think this is the first step of many that the faith leaders community will take," Freeman said.

Jackson said what Dr. King talked about is still relevant today.

"His words have a certain eternality attached to them," Jackson said. "The issues of too much racism, too much greed, those things remain as relevant today as they ever were."

"I think we have to look back, reflect, and remember the movement continues," Freeman agreed.

Jackson called on those in attendance to learn to live the way Dr. King dreamed.

"Too much violence in the world, too much killing," Jackson said. "We must stop the violence and learn to live in a civilized way."

During the event, CME Church donated $25,000 to National Civil Rights Museum.

MLK50 public rally

At noon, Rev. Barber took the place as keynote speaker for the MLK50 public rally outside Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.

Sanitation workers remembered

Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis after two sanitation workers were crushed to death on the job.

Echol Cole and Robert Walker were killed, but their deaths resulted in greater attention to sanitation labor conditions.

Crowds gathered near a home on Verne and Colonial roads to remember the tragic event that changed American history nearly 5 decades ago.

Walker's son stood silently during a wreath ceremony. He was too emotional to speak about the change his father's death started.

Current union president Lee Saunders said the movement started by Cole and Walker is still affecting more than 1.5 million American workers.

"[They] enabled our union to grow substantially," Saunders said. "Now we're one of the biggest unions across this country."

In the midst of their struggle, Dr. King was assassinated. Retired union secretary treasurer Bill Lucy rushed to Lorraine Motel after the shots were fired.

"We got to the Lorraine Motel as quick as we could and it was done," Lucy said.

Saunders said they are still fighting for fair wages and safe working conditions.

MLK honored in Washington

In Washington D.C., Representative Steve Cohen honored King's life in a speech to Congress. Cohen said he was unable to be in Memphis for the day's celebrations because there were votes scheduled to happen in Washington.

What's next?

Similar events will continue until April 4, 2018, which will mark the 50th anniversary of MLK's death.

For more info on MLK50 events, click here.

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