Last week, as the nation marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a panel of experts discussed the Civil Rights leader’s lasting legacy during a community forum at the Rosa Parks Museum on Tuesday night.
A part of the museum’s Real Talk Community Forum series, the event, moderated by Tonya Scott-Williams of The Mommy Chronicles podcast, explored King’s time in Montgomery as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and his lasting legacy.
King arrived in Montgomery in 1954 at the age of 25, but it didn’t take long for those within the community to see him as a gifted leader.
“When Dr. King came to Dexter, the congregation was sold on him,” said Wanda Battle, tour director and guide for the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and Parsonage Museum. “Though he was only 25 years of age, they found him to be well beyond his years in maturity and understanding of the Scriptures. He took the pulpit for the first time in September of 1954 and pastored the church for almost six years. Dr. King was so gifted and anointed in his calling that the other pastors in Montgomery saw those special gifts within him and they were the ones that suggested that he become the spokesperson for the bus boycott. His life and his work changed the world and changed our laws. Now here we are in 2018 and it has changed and continues to change every one of us.”
While often recognized for his activism for racial equality, it was King’s push for economic equality that brought him to Memphis, where he was shot on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968.
“It was the strike by sanitation workers that brought King to Memphis,” said Dr. Kathryn Tucker, lecturer in TROY’s Department of History and Philosophy. “Conditions were terrible. Some of the equipment was so old and malfunctioning that it had killed a couple of the workers, which was what prompted the strike. Jim Lawson, who was the nonviolent guru of the Civil Rights Movement, was there in Memphis and invited King to come there. He very much believed that these were the issues that he was focused on as well – the poverty and the economic justice.”
It was in the spring of 1968 that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were in the planning stages for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, which was an effort to bring thousands of people to Washington, D.C. during that summer to bring awareness to poverty, the need for jobs and economic justice.
The focus on economic justice that King took late in his life was an understandable next step, according to Sara Wood of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Dr. King understood that the issues of racial justice and economic justice were intertwined,” Wood said. “He knew that while having seats at the lunch counter was important, it was diminished if members of the black community couldn’t afford the cup of coffee or hamburger that was being served.”
Tucker said King felt Memphis provided a key opportunity to bring about change that could spread throughout the country.
“King firmly believed that making progress in Memphis was a key step to making progress in the nation,” Tucker said. “For King, you could not pull apart the issues of racial justice and economic justice, especially since these conditions in this particular instance in Memphis were even worse for people of color. He had been on marches. Unfortunately, nonviolence deteriorated during that first march that King was at in Memphis in March. Some of that was deliberate on the part of those who wanted to see that march fail. So King was coming back to Memphis in early April to try again with nonviolence and seeing this as one of the really important steps in what he was trying to accomplish in economic equality and not just racial equality.”
Not everyone was in agreement with King and his plans to address issues of poverty and economic justice. Many felt the issues were too big and the goals to broad, Tucker said.
“I think it helps us to better understand where we are today if you understand the complexities of King and that everyone wasn’t on board with him at the time,” she said. “There is data from 1968 that indicates that one third of Americans blamed King for his own death; they thought he had brought it on himself. If you realize that, I think it helps you understand why we are still dealing with these issues today. It is important that we do find ways to keep spreading this message.”
The panelists agreed that King’s legacy can still be seen today, pointing to some of the tactics used by students who recently marched following the mass shooting incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 students were killed.
“I am so thankful for these young people in this time that are standing up for human rights and social justice,” Battle said. “Young people have always been a part of the movement for change. This is generational; human rights and social justice is an ongoing work. Dr. King said ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ That means I should care about what is happening with and to you.”
Continuing King’s legacy today and into the future requires a combination of education, awareness and action, the panelists agreed.
“It is important that we not forget that history,” Wood said. “These are not new issues that we are dealing with today. They are a continuation of issues that have lasted for generations. It is easy to think that the issues are so big that we, ourselves, are powerless to do anything about them. It is so important for us to know that we have power within ourselves to effect change.”
The educational component plays a key role in the process, according to Tucker.
“Education is important. It is a lot easier to deny racism if you have never learned about how deep it was and how that impact has been passed down through generations,” Tucker said. “If people could understand a little more about how we got to where we are today, maybe that could help to think about the way forward. It is important that we have those difficult discussions.”
Battle said the responsibility for continuing to build on King’s legacy rests with all people.
“I share every day on our tours that all of our work is connected and we are all teaching,” she said. “On every tour, the goal is to not only to come and see the office where Dr. King sat and wrote so many of his sermons or to stand behind the lectern where he delivered that ‘How Long, Not Long’ speech when the Selma to Montgomery march arrived, the goal is for us to think about ‘what do we now do with this legacy?’ That heritage is now in our hands, so what do we do with it when we leave the church, when we leave Montgomery? Every one of us has been called to a mission of love and service. That goal of helping and serving is the work of all of us.”