Thousands Are Drawn To Memphis to Honor King

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

MEMPHIS, April 4 -- Standing in the plaza below the Lorraine Motel, looking up at the balcony where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain 40 years ago, Paul Woodard was full of conflicting emotions.

"You want to see it, but you don't want to see it. It's chilling," said the 50-year-old sanitation supervisor. "But I had to be here."

Woodard and his wife, Katie, made the trek Friday to the National Civil Rights Museum, located in the Lorraine, along with hundreds of others to remember King's death and honor his legacy four decades after he was assassinated.

Woodard said that, for him, the trip was akin to a journey to Mecca, recalling that King's support of sanitation workers in Memphis made it possible for him to succeed in his own career, hundreds of miles away and decades later.

"He gave me the hope when I started on the back of a garbage truck that I could be in charge of the whole operation," said Woodard, who manages a $2.5 million sanitation system in Brunswick, Ga.

Throughout the day visitors lined up in the rain outside the museum, standing with a clear view of the balcony in front of Room 306, where King was shot. The place is frozen in time -- a 1960s-era motel with blue-green doors and metal railings identical to those seen in black-and-white photos of King's aides standing over his limp body.

Presidential candidates Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also paid their respects, while Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) praised King while campaigning in Indiana (Story, A4). Many of King's contemporaries, including Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, were on hand, as were family members of the sanitation workers who invited King to Memphis in 1968 to support their strike.

Wearing a T-shirt imprinted with a photo of striking black sanitation workers, Lula Williams, a 60-year-old grill cook in Memphis, pointed out the figure of her father, Jessie Perry, in the picture. He participated in the strike, which was prompted because blacks were not allowed to change clothes at work after their shifts, were not paid when supervisors sent them home because of bad weather and were forced to work in dangerous conditions.

"When we heard he got shot, we got up, and we prayed that Dr. King would make it," said Williams, noting that her father often talked about King. "[My father] told us to always remember what King did and always remember that he stood up for us. The dream will go on."

Yesterday was the culmination of a week of King-related events and included a memorial march by sanitation workers, a candlelight vigil and a speech by the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close friend of King's.

The Civil Rights Museum, which has been the center of remembrances of King's life and legacy this week, almost did not come to be. For 14 years after King's death, the motel remained open for business -- a living, decaying reminder of his assassination -- until owner Walter Bailey was forced into foreclosure in 1982. To save the Lorraine, prominent people from Memphis formed a group called the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation that eventually purchased it.

Amid exhibits that show civil rights marchers, a bust of Mohandas K. Gandhi, and the striking sanitation workers, the museum now seeks to answer the question: Did the movement die in Memphis? Visitors to the museum and dignitaries in town argued that King's legacy lives on but that much work remains.

"Here we are today building on the same issues that Martin struggled for more than 40 years ago: the question of color in America, the question of poverty in America and the question of military might in America," said Conyers, before visiting the museum.

He spoke on the dais with Clinton, whose campaign stopped by the Church of God in Christ's Mason Temple -- where King gave his final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," on April 3, 1968, before he retired to the Lorraine.

Speaking at the Mason Temple, Bishop Charles E. Blake of the Church of God in Christ said, "Much of the oppression that was imposed upon us has been significantly alleviated, but in many cases we as a people have been so wounded and so handicapped that we could not readily walk into those rooms that had been opened to us."

Williams's daughter, LaSandra Cleaves, 39, who brought her 17-year-old son and his friend to the King exhibit, said she worries that young people have forgotten the importance of the civil rights movement and its leaders.

"I think the dream has somewhat died. Looking at where we as a people are with black-on-black crime. And King always preached about education, and the dropout rate in Memphis is extremely high," Cleaves said. "I don't think the youth truly understand what Dr. King was trying to instill in us."

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