MEMPHIS, Tenn. — White-haired veterans of the sanitation workers’ strike that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in 1968 marked 40 years since his assassination Friday by marching to the motel where he was cut down by a sniper’s bullet.
“Dr. King was like Moses,” said Leslie Moore, 61, who was a sanitation worker in 1968 and is still on the job more than a generation later. “God gave Moses the assignment to lead the children of Israel across the Red Sea. He sent Dr. King here to lead us to a better way.”
The morning rally — which included a dozen or so of the original strikers, along with hundreds of other people, mostly members of AFSCME, the public employees union — was one of two marches to the Lorraine Motel. The motel, once a blacks-only establishment in segregated Memphis, is now a civil rights museum.
In the afternoon, about 800 people made their way through the streets in the rain, wearing bright slickers and carrying umbrellas. The crowd was mostly black but included people of all colors and stations, a display of the kind of unity King once dreamed of and found so tragically elusive in the violence-drenched spring of 1968.
“I was too young to be a part of the struggle,” said union member Sherl Commodore, 50, of Baltimore. “But to be able to come here 40 years later is awesome.”
Baxter Leach, 68, a retired sanitation worker, took part in the strike, which marked the beginning of the end for white domination of government and civic affairs in Memphis. Before the walkout, black sanitation workers labored long hours for little pay and could be fired at the whim of white bosses. They eventually won union representation.
“We honor this day. We march,” Leach said, adding that King helped all Americans. “He was for poor folks. He wasn’t for just one color. He was for all colors.”
Youth counselor Joe Beavers said he and forensic scientist Cassandra Franklin, a black couple from Nashville, wanted to teach their daughter that King “was one of the people who made it easier for her to grow up in a society where we can be color blind.”
“We’re celebrating his life,” 7-year-old Alex said.
The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 at the Lorraine Motel, which now holds exhibits tracing the history of America’s struggle for equal rights. The museum also encompasses the flophouse across the street from which James Earl Ray, a white man, fired the bullet that killed King as he stood on a balcony at the motel. Ray died in prison in 1998.