At events around the country, participants took time to both reflect on King's legacy and discuss how his example can apply to racial and economic divides still plaguing society. Instead of sorrow, King's contemporaries and a new generation of social activists presented a message of resilience and hope.
In New York City, people marched from Harlem, where King was stabbed and nearly killed 60 years ago, to Riverside Church in Morningside Heights where he gave an historic speech, coming out against the war in Vietnam.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded months after King's slaying, held an evening performance in his honor.
Five decades later, it is worth noting how his message and his priorities had evolved by the time he was shot on that balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968.
Dr. King was confronting many challenges that remain with us today. He was battling racism in the North then, not just in the South. He was pushing the government to address poverty, income inequality, structural racism and segregation in cities like Boston and Chicago. He was also calling for an end to a war that was draining the national treasury of funds needed to finance a progressive domestic agenda.
Local events began Tuesday night in Washington Square Park, where Dr. King's image was projected onto the arch. Hundreds gathered to honor the 50th anniversary of not only King's assassination, but also to remember the iconic "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech that King gave in Memphis the night before he was murdered. The speech was played for the crowd.
Mayor Bill de Blasio wore a New York City Sanitation jacket in honor of King's work for sanitation workers, for whom the civil rights leader was in Memphis fighting when he was killed.
"He never meant it to be an idea only for that time for that year 1968, he meant it to be something that would live and grow," de Blasio said. "It was his dream that was supposed to be everybody's, and it required everyday people to stand up and do something."
Speaking in King's hometown of Atlanta, the Rev. Bernice A. King recalled her father as a civil rights leader and great orator whose message of peaceful protest was still vital decades later.
"We decided to start this day remembering the apostle of nonviolence," she said during a ceremony to award the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize held at the King Center.
In Memphis, where King died, hundreds of people bundled in hats and coats gathered for a march led by the same sanitation workers union whose low pay King had come to protest when he was shot.
Dixie Spencer, president of the Bolivar Hardeman County, Tennessee, branch of the NAACP, said remembrances of King's death should be a call to action.
"We know what he worked hard for, we know what he died for, so we just want to keep the dream going," Spencer said. "We just want to make sure that we don't lose the gains that we have made."
The Memphis events were scheduled to feature King's contemporaries, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, along with celebrities such as the rapper Common. In the evening, the Atlanta events culminate with a bell-ringing and wreath-laying at his crypt to mark the moment when he was gunned down on the balcony of the old Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. He was 39.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation in honor of the anniversary, saying: "In remembrance of his profound and inspirational virtues, we look to do as Dr. King did while this world was privileged enough to still have him."
The president has been the target of veiled criticism by some speakers at King commemorations in recent days as they complained of fraught race relations and other divisions made plain since he was elected.
Observances marking King's death were planned coast-to-coast. Community organizers scheduled a march and commemorative program marking the anniversary in Yakima, Washington.
In Montgomery, Alabama, where King first gained notice leading a boycott against segregated city buses, came a symbol of transformation: The daughter of King's one-time nemesis, segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace, planned to participate in a program honoring the slain civil rights leader.
The anniversary of King's death coincides with a resurgence of white supremacy, the continued shootings of unarmed black men and a parade of discouraging statistics on the lack of progress among black Americans on issues from housing to education to wealth. But rather than despair, the resounding message repeated at the commemorations was one of resilience, resolve, and a renewed commitment to King's legacy and unfinished work.
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