“As we gather, it is a time of grief, a time of reflection to that evening in Memphis, Tennessee, on the balcony of the Lorraine hotel,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, who served as master of ceremonies.
A wreath of flowers was laid in front of the memorial as a men’s choir sang hymns such as “Rock My Soul,” and the crowd later joined them in the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Those who gathered were reminded not just of King’s legacy of nonviolent protest but also his work for all forms of social equality and opportunity.
Several speakers addressed the work that remains.
Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Indian nationalist and nonviolent activist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, said subsequent generations of Gandhis and Kings “have done a great disservice” by accepting nonviolence more as a tactic rather than as a principle in civilized society.
“It is not a weapon; it is a way of life,” Gandhi said. “Civilization doesn’t mean wealth. Civilization means we have to respect our people. We have to love our people.”
Several speakers, including Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, said the recent killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida should be a rallying cry today, in the same way the slaying of Emmett Till in Mississippi during the 1950s was a driving force for King.
In a short address that ramped up the crowd, Dyson said that many lack wealth and opportunity, and even though the nation has elected its first black president, such strides would not have been achieved without King.
“There would not be a brother in public housing on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now without the death and blood of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Dyson said.
Lafayette Fisher, 50, came to the vigil from Nashville to pay tribute to the man he considers the most important in African American history.
“This is still a battle between right and wrong,” Fisher, a taxi driver, said. “All of this was so moving. . . . I’ll never forget.”