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#MLK50 reminds us how much more work there is to do

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
The exterior of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – By the time you have exited through the gift shop at the National Civil Rights Museum, here at the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, your mind is reeling from what you have seen and witnessed, nearly 50 years after the tragic, culture-altering events that occured here on April 4, 1968 - the killing of African-American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

A wreath hangs in front of Room 306, the room at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. (Andrew W. Griffin /Red Dirt Report)

And while the State of Tennessee owns the Lorraine Motel, the museum itself is operated as a non-profit organization with all proceeds going toward the upkeep of the museum and advancing the educational mission it follows. And that mission, while focused on King and his leadership in the American Civil Rights Movement, the museum does a fantastic job including tributes to all of those brave people who were part of the movement as well, many thousands of people, in fact.

Dr. King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's example of non-violent civil disobedience in India, as evidenced by this display at the Memphis museum. (Andrew W. Griffin /Red Dirt Report)

And one must recall what America was going through at that point in history. While the Civil Rights movement was still moving forward in the midst of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society," King was still working for racial justice in America. But, he was getting linked up with the fast-growing anti-war movement and the workers' rights movement, the latter which brought King and his Poor Peoples' Campaign to Memphis that March and April, 50 years ago, as Memphis's santitation workers' strike was kicking off that turbulent spring. 

Visitors at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis look at the Montgomery, Alabama bus that Rosa Parks sat in that led to the 1955-56 "Bus Boycott," kickstarting the civil rights movment in America. (Andrew W. Griffin /Red Dirt Report)

As reported in The Nation article “Martin Luther King Jr.: 50 Years Later," written by Michael K. Honey, King saw a need to build on the movement he had been leading for years. But the economic justice angle would be difficult moving forward, King would admit, noting that “(i)t is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income,” and that “resistance from capitalist elites and Southern sheriffs “would be much worse” than what the movement had experienced previously.

Writes Honey: “In Memphis, King called for a second phase of the freedom movement that would go beyond its first phase—the struggle for civil and voting rights—and begin a fight for “economic equality.” Phase two would demand that the nation shift its priorities away from war and military spending and toward housing, health care, education, decent unionized jobs, economic opportunity, and a sustainable income for all. He also proposed a new tactic: During his riveting speech, King called for a “general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

This, after King had called for an end to the Vietnam War - with many black Americans sent to Southeast Asia, only to never return home alive - and wasteful military spending, Honey writes, while criticizing capitalism as well. 

The scene set, as it appeared on April 4, 1968 - National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Of course such a course of action was disturbing to the powers that be, in this case, the FBI, CIA, the US military, the Memphis Police Department, and local and national organized crime leaders, not to mention the stalwart racists and who were the on-the-ground goons who harassed, injured and killed civil-rights activists.

Which brings us to April 4, 1968 and the questions that continue to swirl about what really happened as Dr. King stood on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. 

Attorney and writer William F. Pepper released a remarkably detailed and well-researched book back in 2003 titled An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King. The investigation Pepper conducted - talking to eyewitnesses there that day, while showing that convicted assassin James Earl Ray was innocent. And, indeed, the book demonstrates that Ray was not the lone gunman, driven insane by racist hate. This was a coordinated assassination - an execution, as Pepper puts it - that involved these many powerful institutions and criminal enterprises that hated what King was doing and what he stood for.

And today, King's legacy lives on - in the voices of the oppressed and forgotten Americans that our society continues to largely marginalize and ignore, from dark-skinned folks to young people and students, to women who are paid less in the workplace. 

Writing for The Dallas Morning News last week, writer Kevin Cokley noted the following in his piece "How MLK's death changed America":

News of King's assassination reverberated across the world. The nation had not been so deeply affected since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Black people, now angered and emboldened by such a heinous act of violence, engaged in weeks of rioting and urban rebellion that disrupted the country.

The psychological impact of King's assassination endures 50 years later. King taught us that in the ongoing black freedom struggle, he was willing to die for a cause he knew was bigger than himself. He died for black freedom and ultimately trying to save the soul of this country. In many ways his death can be seen as the inheritance of thousands of people and recent social movements. 

The Movement for Black Lives is the most direct continuation of King's work, as Black Lives Matter activists have continued the fight for civil rights. Most recently in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the March For Our Lives took place in Washington, D.C. This student-led social movement seeks to pass legislation that effectively addresses gun violence. Interestingly, death by a gun is the common denominator behind these social movements.”

MLK's dream is still unfolding, over 50 years later. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Yes, there is still much more work to do. And on this 50th anniversary of MLK's death, let us not forget that positive social change is possible. Look at the Black Lives Matter activists. The fed-up school teachers here in Oklahoma and elsewhere. The students fed up with gun violence in their schools. The LGBT activist and those seeking a safe and healthy environment. The burgeoning justice reform movements of various sorts. It's inspiring!

And beyond our borders the strong voices for peace and justice in places where tyranny and oppression is still commonplace.

There is still so much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his message. His dream is not fully realized - not yet - but a new generation is giving us older folks some hope. It appears these youngsters are actually aking what King said seriously - and running with it in these early years of the 21st century, as the old men and their old ways are increasingly rejected and cast upon the ash heap of history.

For me that is a cause for celebration.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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