As we approach the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we recognize the significance of reflecting on his life and commemorating his legacy. His work allows us to experience freedoms that did not previously exist for minorities. Because of Dr. King, we have a platform to motivate and activate change. It’s our turn.
Be part of the social conversation using the hashtag #MLK50. Our commemoration of Dr. King motivates others to push for equality in the way he and other civil rights activists did years ago.
Your thoughts, ideas and stories matter. Join the conversation, and submit your story - we'll be featuring stories throughout the commeroration here and on our social networks using #MLK50.
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The sun sets over the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on July 10, 2016.
Memphis protesters explain what drove them to the bridge.
The July 10, 2016, protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge threw solidarity on the streets of Memphis into sharp relief. The city hadn’t seen spontaneous support for a cause on that scale for nearly half a century.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of the 1968 sanitation strikes in Memphis marked the height of an era of policy-challenging civil disobedience in the city — and served as the backdrop to King’s assassination. The subsequent decades brought both institutional and cultural calls for more compliant protests; city laws required protesters to pull permits, and gatherings without those permits were limited to fewer than 25 people.
As that long night last July settles into our collective memory, the story of the thousand residents of this majority-black city who came together to march against the deaths of two black men in other cities is unique. Their impromptu momentum kept traffic at a standstill across the six lanes of Interstate 40 that cross the Mississippi River for several hours.
Collective experience allows us “to build a narrative picture of the past and through this process develop an image and an identity for ourselves.”
In the crowd, people explained why they showed up — sometimes at the top of their lungs over fists and cell phones raised high, and sometimes in the face of the Memphis police officers, who hemmed protesters in on both eastbound and westbound lanes. There was a discordant collection of sounds: spirituals, chants, profanity, sirens and bullhorns, but it was peaceful.
For testimonies by folks who witnessed that catharsis, in their own words and, sometimes, images. Only the people who gathered in that place and time can tell what took place high above the Mississippi River’s southern flow. READ MORE:
Voices from across the city recount the story of the Memphis bridge protest of 2016
Stories can be fragile. People can jumble them, overtake them and twist them. Told again and again, the details can be exaggerated, emphasized or erased.
But the people of Memphis argue that the story of the Memphis bridge protest on July 10, 2016, is an important one. It must not be twisted.
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote, “A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of full victory. It underestimates the value of confrontation and dissolves the confidence born of partial victory by which new efforts are powered.”
And so in order to tell that story of that hot night, that “short-term encounter,” MLK50 has collected the stories of people who were there. Above, you can hear them tell their story in their own words.
A series examining a look at the year since the Memphis bridge protest, policing protesters, and multimedia "In Their Voices."
The summer of 2016 was filled with protests all across the country. People took to the streets in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was killed by a police officer. People protested outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, where Philando Castile was killed by a police officer less than 24 hours later.
And people took to the streets in Memphis, where Darrius Stewart was killed by a police officer the previous summer.
In what became the largest spontaneous protest in Memphis history, more than 1,000 protesters made their voices heard when they stopped traffic in all six lanes of the Interstate 40 bridge to Arkansas.
As we approach the anniversary of this historic protest, MLK50 will bring you the story.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Read more from MLK50 on the bridge protest:
• Friday, July 7: “Take It To The Bridge,” The changes the bridge protest brought and the ones it didn’t, by MLK50 founder Wendi C. Thomas
• Also Friday: When A City Fails To Hear, a photo essay by photographer Andrea Morales
• Saturday, July 8: Policing the protesters, a look at police-community relations by MLK50 contributor Micaela Watts
• Also Saturday: Sunday rally planned for anniversary of bridge protest by MLK50 founder Wendi C. Thomas
• Sunday, July 9: In Their Voices, a multimedia presentation by MLK50 contributor Molly Mulroy
• Monday, July 10: MLK50’s coverage of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens’ anniversary event
July 10, 2016. Photo by Andrea Morales
Nearly one year ago, Memphis protesters channeled Dr. King’s spirit of civil disobedience. What’s changed since?
MEMPHIS — July 10 marks the anniversary of the largest spontaneous act of civil disobedience in the city’s modern history.
The spark: The police killings of two black men in less than 24 hours, Alton Sterling on July 5 in Louisiana and Philando Castile on July 6 in Minnesota.
The kindling, though, was the generations-old resentment and rage simmering in a majority-black city where the wealth and prosperity is concentrated in the white minority and many black people live on the economic margins.
On that Sunday afternoon, more than 1,000 people — almost all young and black — marched up the Hernando DeSoto bridge that crosses the Mississippi River into Arkansas, snarling traffic for hours. As the sun set, marking the sky with a pink stripe near the horizon, police sirens drowned out the protesters’ chants.
Their faces inches away from armed officers, protesters spoke their pain to power.
“This was the only opportunity that they would ever have in their life to even talk to a police officer in a way that won’t get them killed,” said organizer Jayanni Webster, one of the last people to leave the bridge.
“People in Memphis never have the opportunity to confront those in power… those who represent a failed state of the economy and the politics of this city that continually oppresses people.”
This loosely organized crowd resurrected the radical spirit of the exemplar of civil disobedience, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated nearly 50 years ago, on a motel balcony not two miles from the bridge. He came to town on behalf of striking black city sanitation workers.
Knowingly or not, the masses followed the instructions in one of King’s last speeches here: Apply economic pressure to force the city to provide better-paying jobs and end economic apartheid.
So on that Sunday afternoon, they blocked the span that every day funnels more than 37,000 vehicles east and west: The Interstate 40 bridge, with its iconic M-shaped arches.
If only for one night, protesters used their bodies to sever the lifeblood of the city where FedEx is headquartered, the city that bills itself as the nation’s distribution capital: Interstate commerce. Under their feet rumbled the muddy Mississippi, which once transported enslaved ancestors to brutal plantations.
“We waited 400 years to get justice, they’re going to wait — they’re going to wait! — to get across this bridge!” activist Devante Hill told a TV news reporter.
TO READ MORE:
Joanne Blanchard, Ph.D, shared her story at the National Urban League Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio in July of 2014.
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On April 4th, 1968, an assassin took the life, but not the dream, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rev. King, the most prominent civil rights leader of the 20th century, had traveled to Memphis to support 1,300 striking black sanitation workers with a peaceful march. While standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was struck by a single bullet fired from a rooming house across the street.
On May 2, 1963, black children, trained in nonviolent tactics, gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial segregation. Over the course of the protest, children were arrested, blasted with fire hoses, clubbed and attacked by dogs. Images of the children appeared on television and in newspapers around the world, provoking global outrage. The Birmingham, Alabama, Children’s Crusade continued through May 10th.
From those who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., to those marched with him, participants in the “His Dream, Our Stories: Voices of the Civil Rights Movement” share their memories of the man, the movement, the method of non-violent action and the impact of a man who was for all people.
On June 23, 1963, two months before the March on Washington, another march took place, The Detroit Walk to Freedom, the largest civil rights demonstration in the nations history up to that date. Speakers at the event included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered a precursor to the I Have A Dream speech made famous from the Washington march. Attendees share their recollections of event.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., Founder and President of the Rainbow Push Coalition reflects on the Civil Rights Movement, its legacy and the assassination of Dr. King. He recalls the broken promise of America to the African-American community. His advice to young people of today, Our row’s hard to plow. But dont surrender … use your mind, your body and spirit to achieve your dreams.
Valerie Shultz-Wilson, President and CEO of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut references the significant Civil Rights events of 1963 and the lasting impact of the March on Washington. “It’s made a lasting impact … we often recount that time and look back on it fondly, but then there’s also a great sense of sadness. … Because we have not been able to duplicate that march since then.
On November 20th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11063, banning federally funded housing programs from discriminating against individuals on the basis of race. The order was designed to end the rampant racial prejudice influencing the loan decisions of government-backed organizations like the Federal Housing Administration.
My parents were teenagers in 1968. My father was a 14 years old Memphian and recounts to me April 4th as if it happened yesterday. He says the tension was palpable in the city. Not only the pain of losing a great leader filling the air, but, also the shame of being the city where his life ended...
My parents were teenagers in 1968. My father was a 14 years old Memphian and recounts to me April 4th as if it happened yesterday. He says the tension was palpable in the city. Not only the pain of losing a great leader filling the air, but, also the shame of being the city where his life ended. He says, "No one addresses how the pain of that lost directly impacted the cities self-worth." Memphis is an ideal model to examine the impact of Dr. King's platforms and measure the distance we've come from the start. Dr. King was in Memphis providing support and guidance for the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike. The strike aimed to rectify low pay, unfit working conditions and assert the rights of workers to unionize. King’s presence in Memphis illustrated his commitment to better jobs with higher wages and peace and nonviolence. The assassination and the subsequent riots around the country were an affront to the pillars of Dr. King’s platform. Being the place where an event occurred that shook the national began a narrative that painted Memphis in a negative light. But, two weeks after King’s death, there was a resolution to the strike and recognition of the workers’ rights to unionize. The city made some progress in the wake of tragedy.
I am a student of Memphis, my high school, undergraduate and now graduate school education are all a product of this city. My disposition and worldview are shaped by the happenings here. I've picked up a few dialectical attributes and have integrated them into my daily language, but most certainly the quality that I have gained from Memphis is an attitude of tenacity. Through Memphis, I have learned the will and desire to continually work to make my surroundings better and allow the people around me to benefit from my efforts. I realize that, in this way, the spirit of Dr. King lives in Memphis motivating young adults like myself to move younger adults toward action to better their communities. It donned on me that if my parents were teenagers at the time of the tragedy at Lorraine Motel, they were among the last generation to be born without all of their rights protected. I am the first generation of my family to benefit from the Civil Rights Act of ’68 and the Civil Rights Act of ‘64, which deemed segregation illegal, granted equal access to public places, pushed desegregation of schools and protection for voting rights. I cannot ignore the privileges granted by the work of King and his contemporaries and it is my duty to ensure young people recognize their privileges as well.
As part of the MLK50 commemoration, the National Civil Rights Museum wants to collect your stories on Dr. King, his life, his death, and his legacy. As a historical museum, it is important to for us to capture not only the accounts of people who were the eyewitnesses to a historical event, but also the people impacted by that event, even years later...
As part of the MLK50 commemoration, the National Civil Rights Museum wants to collect your stories on Dr. King, his life, his death, and his legacy. As a historical museum, it is important to for us to capture not only the accounts of people who were the eyewitnesses to a historical event, but also the people impacted by that event, even years later. In the years to come, someone will wonder how people reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, and the writings left here will provide some insight.
Your stories are welcomed here. If you remember where you were in 1968, we want your stories. If you remember family stories about that fateful moment, we want your stories. If you saw Dr. King speak in person, or you have been inspired by his life, we want your stories. If you first learned about Dr. King in elementary school or later in life, we want your stories. If you live in the United States, or outside of the United States, we want your stories. The more stories we receive the richer the dialog. If Your Stories was a painting, each story added here will add color, depth, and dimension.
Take the time to reflect on our theme. What do you have to say? What is your story?
Civil Rights Activist Purcell Conway shares his account of the demonstrations to integrate a Florida beach, and the violence that ensued.