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Marchers honor King on anniversary of death

Presidential candidates, civil rights leaders, labor activists and thousands of everyday citizens came together Friday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 40th anniversary of his death.
Image: 40th Anniversary Of MLK's Assassination Remembered
Members of the Memphis group Beloved Community take part in a march to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, as part of the opening event marking the civil rights leader's death Friday in Memphis, Tenn.Win McNamee / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Leslie Moore remembered him well.

"Dr. King was like Moses," Moore said. Moore was a sanitation worker in Memphis when civil right leader Martin Luther King Jr. came to the city in support of striking black sanitation workers.

It was at the city's Lorraine Motel 40 years ago Friday that King was shot dead. The nation reacted with shock, rage, deep sorrow and in some places violence. There was also a renewed dedication to King's dream of racial integration, justice for the poor and for peace.

Moore — who's still on the job — says God sent King to the city "to lead us to a better way."

Hundreds marched in the rain on Friday afternoon to the motel, retired sanitation worker Baxter Leach was among them. He noted that King was for people of all colors and "for poor folks."

There was a moment of silence, followed by the solemn sounding of bells.

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 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 Friday from their downtown headquarters to the motel.

Nonviolence as a weaponMarchers 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.

McCain, Clinton in Memphis 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 took part in later Memphis events that included an afternoon “recommitment march” and the laying of wreaths at the motel. Sen. Barack Obama spoke of King from Indiana.

“The whole nation flinched” when King was killed, said writer Cynthia Griggs Fleming, one of the many historians, commentators and activists in town for panel discussions and lectures on King’s legacy.

King advised his followers to keep working for equal rights for all citizens, “to keep on moving,” no matter what obstacles they faced, Fleming said in a talk Thursday at a Memphis church.

“Don’t be so consumed by the pain that you don’t hear the message,” she said.

The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 at the former motel, which now holds most of the 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.

'The world still listens to Martin'
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.