More than a half century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis, leaders honored the civil rights leader's legacy and lamented the work that remains to be done to accomplish his mission 51 years later.
Continuing to work on King's unfinished business was a theme throughout commemoration ceremonies on Thursday, which marked the 51st anniversary of King's death at the Lorraine Motel.
"May we not give up, may we keep our hands on the plow, may we unselfishly work with each other in every way possible" to dismantle wrongs, said civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson at the April 4 commemoration at the National Civil Rights Museum.
King "weeps in his grave" over what has become of his "beloved America," said Dr. Omid Safi, director of The Islamic Studies Center at Duke University, who gave the keynote speech at Thursday's commemoration.
"We are in Memphis here today to say, 'What does love have to say in a broken world like this?'" Safi said.
"Can we be a good nation?"
Safi juxtaposed King's vision for equality and nonviolent protest with President Donald Trump and a divided America in 2019.
"If someone is telling you they're here to make America great again, that is not a prophet. That is someone trying to sell you something," Safi said. "Forget about being great. Can you be good? Can we be a good nation, can we be a kind nation, can we be loving and just?"
Fifty-one years ago, King traveled to Memphis in support of African American city sanitation workers who were on strike. He delivered his famed final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," at the Mason Temple.
The next day, April 4, 1968, at 6:01 p.m., King was fatally shot as he stood on the Lorraine Motel balcony.
James Earl Ray was arrested two months later at London's Heathrow Airport. He was extradited to the United States and charged with King's killing.
Jesse Jackson returns to Memphis
The Memphis sanitation workers represented the epitome of the struggle, said civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in Memphis with King in April 1968.
Returning to Memphis elicits a combination of pain and joy for Jackson, he said.
"The strangest thing about the South today – the biggest beneficiary of the civil rights movement has been the South," Jackson said in a Thursday session with CA reporters and editors. "The contradiction is, you've got poor people fighting for the right to remain poor."
King exposed that contradiction, Jackson said.
And poverty remains "unfinished business" for the movement today, Jackson said.
"If we can resurrect this part of our country, it can change our country for the better forever," Jackson said.
Rain gives way to blue skies
Rain moved Thursday's ceremony inside, but by the time the crowd observed a moment of silence at 6:01 p.m., blue skies were visible over Memphis.
Thousands of people descended on Memphis last year for the 50th anniversary of King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel, for rallies, marches and other events to honor the civil rights leader's legacy.
The central question asked this year, around the 51st anniversary of King's death, was "where are we going?"
Diversity, equity and inclusion are commonly used words in 2019, said National Civil Rights Museum President Terri Lee Freeman, but she questioned whether "we are putting forth the effort" King would see necessary for achieving those aims.
Mayor Strickland speaks on King legacy
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said King's legacy is "as loud and powerful today" as it was five decades ago, and that he hopes the unique relationship between King and Memphis "continues to remind us to work everyday on our challenges," like poverty, lack of equity and educational achievement.
Safi, the keynote speaker, encouraged the crowd in Memphis Thursday to be more than outraged, to be forces of good.
"We cannot defeat the hateful with hate. We cannot out-tweet them, outshout them and we're not going to win by being more bombastic," Safi said. "We've got the one weapon that is divine. And that weapon is love."
Race relations in Memphis now
At the end of the event, some expressed concern over where race relations have been going in Memphis. Lorri Fentress, a lawyer in Memphis, has been living in Memphis for at least 13 years after she moved to the city following Hurricane Katrina.
Fentress said that the backdrop of King coming to Memphis was to help under-resourced sanitation workers. King was supposed to appear in federal court following a bloody march that took place between protesting strikers and local police.
Fentress said it was significant that King came to Memphis and was able to "subject himself" to the legal system for other people.
"We had deplorable working conditions and the significance for this event today makes some of us reflect on some of the blessings we have, all the opportunities that we fail to seize upon on his blood, on his sacrifice," said Fentress.
But Fentress said more could be done to address the issues of race in the city. While MLK Jr. Day and the anniversary of his assassination are recognized, she said when it is all over, people in the city of Memphis are still going through the same problems.
"When you look around at the city in general, there is so much work to be done," said Fentress.
Nabil Bayakly, an associate professor of biology at Lemoyne-Owen college, spoke at the event and offered a reflection of King on Thursday. He also said the work of King still has a long way to go.
"Whatever he came here for 51 years ago, the issues are still there. We can still talk about them, we can still see them," Bayakly said in an interview.
Bayakly said he has been in Memphis since 1990 and that he believes Memphis has some growth when it comes to race relations in the city. Like Fentress, he said there are still improvements to be made.
"We are still segregated. We still have North, South and East Memphis ... North Memphis is suffering, South Memphis is suffering," he said.
"We have to come together and fight against the injustices going on."