Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (MLK), the leader of the Civil Rights Movement was assassinated 50 years ago on the Lorraine Motel’s balcony in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. On that historic, unforgettable, tragic day, people of all nations who were inspired by Dr. King shed many tears. Reminiscing about what took place 50 years ago, I needed to return to the city for a week to this tragic moment to shed more tears and learn more about this Nobel Peace Prize Winner’s beliefs and messages.
Dr. King was influential in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and though these were major accomplishments, Dr. King knew more work needed to be done. The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968 is what brought Dr. King to Memphis because the workers were working full time hours but earning part time wages ($1.50 an hour), horrible working conditions, partial benefits and much more. They were not allowed to eat their lunches in the cafeteria but in their garbage trucks. At times, they would have to walk home from work because the stench from their job, they were not allowed on public transportation, among other reasons.
Mr. Ozell Ueal, one of the surviving Memphis Sanitation Workers who retired in 2011 after being a dedicated employee to the Sanitation Department for 52 years. He is blessed to see his and his brother, the late Jasper Ueal names engraved in honor for them. Mr. Ueal feels strongly it has been overdue in receiving recognition and honors – Photo Courtesy of Renee Sudderth
Mr. Joe White, one of the surviving Memphis Sanitation Workers who marched in 1968 “to stand up for something” that he believed in. They were honored with this beautiful medallion giving them their respect and justification that was long overdue – Photo Courtesy of Renee Sudderth
Enough was enough when two of their co-workers, Mr. Echol Cole and Mr. Robert Walker, Jr. were crushed to death due to a malfunction inside their truck. The workers and the community knew a change had to come, which is why Rev. James Lawson, a community leader invited Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. to Memphis.
The Year 1968 consisted of so many unforgettable moments: The assassinations of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.; two months later, Senator Robert F. Kennedy; Republican Richard M. Nixon became the 37th President who was later impeached; the Vietnam War that lost many soldiers physically and mentally; the astronauts circled the moon and through it all, we realized that Dr. King “living was not in vain”.
MONDAY, APRIL 2, 2018 – Driving from East Tennessee (Knoxville) to West Tennessee was an adventurous ride for my sister, Toni Sudderth and me. We made a stop in Brownsville, TN which is 11 miles from Nutbush, TN, and we saw a sign “Tina Turner Museum”. She is the legendary Queen of Rock-N-Roll. It was very exciting.
While touring, my friend Janie Mennis who was 50 minutes away in Memphis at the event suprisedly called to tell me she had a free ticket (face value $75) to the MLK50 “Where Do We Go From Here?” Luncheon.
I was especially excited because the keynote speaker was the Honorable and Former Attorney General Eric Holder who presided for two terms with the President Barack Obama’s Administration. Therefore, we jumped into the car and quickly drove to Memphis, asking my sister to drop me off at the famous Peabody Hotel while she drove around site seeing in downtown Memphis and Arkansas. Mr. Holder’s speech was very informative and entertaining.
While there, I met and then joined Gary Hunter, one of President Obama’s former photographers for many activities. I saw him throughout the entire week and I would laugh how he was moving and taking all those photos while I was trying to do the same thing.
After the luncheon, people headed to the Lorraine Motel, now known as the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991 and was about two blocks away. It was God who stepped in when we saw a man walking across the street and asked him for directions. We started talking and he told my sister and me that he couldn’t go to the Lorraine Motel because he was on his way to the MLK50 Luminary Awards, Honoring Memphis 1968 Sanitation Workers.
Surprisingly, he said his father, Ozell Ueal was one of the Sanitation Workers who had worked for 52 years with the company and was going to be honored with the other surviving and deceased workers. Enthusiastically, we made time to listen to Michael Ozell Ueal, Jr.’s stories about his father and family. We stayed in contact throughout this busy week.
Finally, my sister and I arrived at the Lorraine Motel and it was good we did because Federal Express made it possible for everyone to visit the museum for FREE this day. Before we entered, I saw so many Atlanta residents and friends that I knew. I was shocked and happy at the same time.
The National Civil Rights Museum really took my breath and mind away that it was so hard to process this mentally. To know my ancestors came from Africa and were transported to various parts of the world in chains and shackles as involuntarily slaves, not like people coming to America freely on their own now, brought some deep emotions upon me.
However, a sense of pride, tears and excitement took over when I saw the display where Martin L. King Jr.’s Dream became a “Reality” when President Barack H. Obama, an African-American became the 44th President of the United States.
Rev. Dr. Bernice King was in the lower level of the museum giving a speech while I was touring. I started hurrying through the exhibits but stopped in my tracks when I came to Dr. King’s room where he spent his last night. Again, an emotional moment over powered me.
TUESDAY APRIL 3 – My sister and I watched the TV coverage of the many MLK events around the United States and Memphis. Then, it was time to venture out to eat our Memphis BBQ. We stopped at the Sheraton Hotel to ask people if they had any tickets for the “50th Anniversary of the Mountaintop Speech and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike at the Mason Temple Church” for that night to hear speeches at the same church where Dr. King gave his famous and last speech.
Everyone had told me all the tickets were gone. I believed it but I didn’t stop there. Again, God stepped in when I happen to notice a woman and I asked her about the tickets. She told me to wait a minute. She made two phone calls, looked inside her purse and brought out two tickets. I hugged her, started crying and saying “Thank You Jesus!!!” She said she will see me there and now she knew why God had sent her to this hotel. I rushed back to the car to tell Toni the unbelievable news.
We rushed to eat on Beale Street and then, we went to the church where MLK gave his last speech 50 years ago. We arrived and the lines were long but I had to stop and take photos in the rain. I understand the night MLK spoke; it was a terrible storm with excessive thunder and lightning.
Once we were inside, I couldn’t believe how the church was packed. It was like in past years when church goers couldn’t wait to get inside the church. As soon as we walked into the sanctuary, the choir started singing the fast, gospel version of “We Shall Overcome”. I was clapping, singing and crying while walking to my seat but I never sat down during that song because the spirit was over me. Also, I was imaging what this church’s atmosphere was like 50 years ago.
I understand Dr. King was so exhausted that he wasn’t planning to be at church for he needed his rest; but the congregation kept chanting his name and someone went and brought him to the church. He didn’t have a speech prepared but he spoke 45 minutes and basically told everyone his eyes had seen the glory and the coming of the Lord and he had been to the Mountaintop!!!
All the speakers were great!!! We were excited when President Obama gave his speech via satellite. Then we listened to Former Atlanta Mayor Ambassador Andrew Young, and Dr. Kings’ children, Bernice and Martin King III who gave powerful speeches. Rev. Bernice explained how people could never image what she and her three siblings had to go through during their childhood years.
She said they all grieve their father’s death in their own way but feel they have never buried him. She mentioned about her father’s brother drowning mysteriously, because he knew something about their father’s death; then, their grandmother being shot to death while playing the organ during a Sunday morning worship service.
During the week, I had heard Rev. Jesse Jackson made a unique spiritual comparison between Jesus and Martin on their last days on earth–that was deep.
When I left the church, I was overcome with joy and triumph. I ran into friend Janie Mennis and she had just been interviewed by Roland Martin’s Show. I told my sister, we had to get ready for the big day tomorrow which was the day the world was in shock about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement being gunned down 50 years ago.
WEDNESDAY, April 4, 2018 – My sister Toni and I woke up to go watch the “I Am A Man” parade instead of walking in it. It was so emotional watching over 2,000 marchers and the Sanitation Workers, who rode in golf carts. The spirit of togetherness was in the air with signs reading the same thing as stated 50 years ago.
I cried because my mind went back to when Martin and his followers marched for Justice, Peace and Jobs. I cried more because 50 years later, we still need to march for the same reasons. As a minority, we have made tremendous progress, but there is still more work to do. One person cannot do it alone.
Immediately after the march, we gathered around the stage to listen to Emcee Van Jones, CNN News Host; Senator Bernie Sanders; Common; Chris Tucker; Martin L. King III; Rev. Al Sharpton; Sheila E.; Angela Rye, CNN Commentator; the teenager girl from Parkland, Florida School and others. The speeches were amazing, but we knew we had to go eat some more BBQ and then go to the Lorraine Motel where “Remembrance” activities were going on all day.
When we arrived at the Lorraine Motel site, we saw a huge crowd, cameras and so much action happening on stage and on the balcony. You saw all nationalities there, which made me think of the crowd when I attended both President Obama’s inaugurations. It was beautiful but at the same time emotional because we were at the precise location where exactly 50 years ago an assassination bullet met up with Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. at 6:01 p.m. (CST) on April 4, 1968.
When they rang the bell 39 times for the number of his earthly years, I couldn’t stop crying. Not only was I looking and listening to the bell ringing on the right side of the stage, but my eyes stayed focus on the left side of the stage at the balcony where he was gunned down, the wreath was being placed in front of Room 306 and watching sadly, Rev. Jesse Jackson walking back and forth between Room 306 and 305 because his room was next to Dr. King. I could only image what was going through his mind. He was right there exactly 50 years ago when his friend was killed in cold blood because of hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The King was gone but not the Dream.
After the bell ringing, Rev. Al Green sang the song Dr. King loved and requested someone sing at his funeral “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. However, Rev. Green jazzed it up with a gospel fast pace twist which sounded good but I was still crying. It was great seeing Rev. Jackson, Congressman John Lewis next to Rev. Green who sang two more songs.
Afterwards, people were interacting and talking to one another. Luckily, I was interviewed by a college student who was making a documentary of this special day. Finally, we were ready to go home to get ready for the next day which supposed to have been a visit to see another King. The King of Rock N Roll, Elvis Presley (estate) but we went to another MLK activity instead.
THURSDAY, APRIL 5 – Michael, the son of the Sanitation Worker texted me and said his father and other Sanitation Workers would be at the unveiling of the “I AM A MAN” monument at Clayborn Temple, the church where they held many meetings during the 1968 Strike.
When we arrived, we were excited to hear the speakers, watched the unveiling, met the Sanitation Workers and talk with them about how they felt being honored 50 years later for their service and what they stood for. I was so proud to be in their company and said thank you for standing up for something and what was right.
After that great ceremony, my sister Toni and I were on our way back to Atlanta. However, on that Friday, Michael called to say Toni had made the front page of the Memphis newspaper “The Commercial Appeal” with his father. Oh, my goodness! We were excited about that. The first thing I said, “Where was I, I missed it”!!!
Back in Atlanta, Toni and I visited MLK’s home, the crypts (Martin and wife Coretta) and Ebenezer Baptist Church to pay our respect. There were many times Dr. King and others made that trip from Atlanta to Memphis. Again, we were emotional.
MONDAY, APRIL 9, 2018 – I finally returned to work in Atlanta but I felt so sad I couldn’t attend “The March for Humanity” marking the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession through Atlanta. I had to watch everything on the evening news and I felt so empty because I could not be there in person.
This gathering experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. Being in Memphis to see and feel the route where Dr. King and others had marched, the meetings, gathered at the church to hear his last “Mountaintop” speech and being at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King met his untimely death will always be etched in my mind and heart.
We can all learn from the life he lived and how he always wanted to help others move forward. If you do that, then at the end of your life when we are shedding a tear for you we can say as with Martin “My Living Shall Not Be In Vain”.
A more in-depth story, interviews, celebrities and the best of my 200 photos will be featured in a Published On-Line or Paperback Book. The Legacy Will Continue….