Up Next

MLK50

Thousands attend MLK50 commemoration in Memphis but for different reasons

Civil rights icons, union workers, students and activists participate in several historic events

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Audriana Thomas made a trip to Memphis and found herself in the midst of making history. The Florida A&M University student, one of dozens selected as a delegate for the I AM 2018 Mountaintop Conference honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and other great leaders, was front and center for the MLK50 march on behalf of union workers.

“AFSCME came to my school and did a seminar on different injustices that are going on in society, specifically with workers’ unions, and they actually recruited us,” Thomas said. “They have actually been giving us leadership training and helping equip us for our future.”

Thomas, other visitors, civil rights icons, pastors, and others numbering more than 7,000 made their way to downtown Memphis to commemorate the death of King in the city where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

A crowd gathered in the morning on the north end of Beale Street in Memphis to recreate the legendary “I AM A MAN” photo. Several groups of visitors headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Others piled onto another corner at Fourth and Beale streets, anticipating a march slated for noon. The location was filled with music by performers Common, Goapele and Sheila E., as well as speakers who took to the stage throughout the morning. Hundreds more continued to arrive for the kickoff of the nearly two-hour MLK50 march.

Locked arm in arm, Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea, and daughter Yolanda Renee were joined by Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. James Lawson, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, Bishop Charles Blake, actors Chris Tucker and Glynn Turman, and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Hundreds made their way through the stop-and-go path in the chilly spring weather.

While many were in Memphis to commemorate King’s death and honor his fight for justice, some were continuing his fight for better wages and safer working conditions.

Francis Nichols III of Washington, D.C., represented the American Federation of Government Employees as an organizer for AFGE Y.O.U.N.G. (Young Organizing Unionists for the Next Generation).

“We make sure there is a future for our youth today,” Nichols said. “We make sure there is stability and fair work wages and safe work conditions for all. That’s what we stand for at AFGE. … This is something monumental, and everyone got to witness that. He [King] died for us, and we will march for him.”

Meanwhile, Memphian Michael Clark said he understood local concerns in the community. As a Memphis sanitation department employee for 36 years, he said, this march is dear to his heart.

“I will be here every year until I leave here. And I will teach my kids the same thing.”

After the march, a red and white wreath was dropped from the balcony at 6:01 p.m., followed by a moment of silence and a ringing of the 120-year-old, 1,700-pound church bell from Clayborn Temple in Memphis. Singer Al Green hit the stage for a surprise performance in front of thousands.

Wednesday’s events wrapped up with an Evening of Storytelling at the city’s Crosstown Concourse, with panels hosted by Michael Eric Dyson, Tamron Hall and April Ryan featuring the local organizer and founder of the Take ‘Em Down 901 campaign, Tami Sawyer; national activist Bree Newsome; Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.; and others.

While many will leave Memphis, the city’s struggle with poverty, racism and classism persists. These issues are chronicled by columnist Wendi C. Thomas, who founded MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. The digital website is a yearlong reporting project produced by a team of writers, editors and photographers. The coverage focuses on issues that were close to King’s heart, such as jobs and wages, power and wealth, and black business.

MLK50.com reported on research that concluded that 50 years after King’s fight for city sanitation workers, “white workers hold a sizable majority of the higher-status and better-paying jobs among large, private employers in the Memphis metro area, though they represent only 43 percent of the overall workforce.” The data also shows “88 percent of executives and senior level managers in the Memphis area were white. In the lowest-paying job categories, nearly 76 percent of laborers and 73 percent of service workers were black” and “the median income for 2016 was $35,664 for black households and $69,860 for white households.”

Other activists in Memphis were part of the Fight for $15 campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage. The state minimum wage rate for Tennessee in 2017 and 2018 is $7.25 per hour, the current federal minimum wage rate. According to the Fight for $15 website, the campaign organizers and participants “won $62 billion in raises for 22 million people across the country by standing up and going on strike for $15/hr and union rights.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.