As the events and speeches and remembrances of this week have reminded us, it has been 50 years since the death of the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He came to Memphis on a mission of social justice and redemption, on behalf of sanitation workers who were striking not just for better working conditions or on behalf of a union, but for simple human dignity and the right to say, in the famous words of signs carried en masse by the strikers and their supporters: I AM A MAN.
- Jackson Baker
- Jesse Jackson
Those 50 years ago, a young African-American minister named Jesse Jackson was with King on his mission here, as he had intended to be on King's forthcoming Poor People's March in Washington, for which the sanitation strike had come to serve as something of a warmup. Jackson was with King also at the Lorraine Motel when he was struck down by an assassin's bullet, to become a martyr to the various causes of compassion and Christian justice implicit in the mission of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It was only appropriate that one of the first acts of commemoration in Memphis of King's sacrifice should come on Easter Sunday, in a homily delivered by the Rev. Jackson, who in the intervening 50 years came to be a major avatar of social justice in his own right. And it was further appropriate that, bowed somewhat by advancing years and a newly diagnosed case of Pakinson's disease, he should be delivering his message of remembrance and redemption to a predominantly white congregation at St. John's Methodist church, symbolically bridging the racial gap that King had sought to eradicate and simultaneously expressing the sense of unity of blacks and whites and all human kinds that King thought belonged to his last mission to eradicate the ultimate injustice of poverty.
At the conclusion of his homily, Jackson pointed out the resemblance of King's fate in his last days to that of the Christ of the gospels. Memphis, he said, was where the great martyr found his Calvary. Foreseeing the crowds that were expected to be in attendance this week at commemorative ceremonies at the site of the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, Jackson said, "But he is not there. The stone has been rolled away." The lies, animosities, jealousies, and attacks King endured in his life, not only from white racists but also from ambitious militants impatient with his nonviolent means, could no longer touch him in his resurrected state. "He has left this place."
All of us, said Jackson, all who would dedicate themselves to justice, must go through a ritual crucifixion of sorts, followed by a triumphant resurrection of spirit. He led the congregation at St. John's in a litany in which they repeated his words, which recapitulated a necessary cycle: "We must go through Friday to get to Sunday. We must go through suffering and doubt and fear and make tough choices. ... In the tug of war for the soul of our nation, we must not go backward to hurt or hate. Thank Jesus. Long live Martin Luther King. God bless you!"
All things considered, and regardless of the various faiths of the attendees gathering here in Memphis, it was hard to imagine a more appropriate message to initiate this week of remembrance.