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In Art and Song, A Legacy Remembered

Photograph by Angela Kim.

From photography exhibits to concerts, the 50th Anniversary commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death goes beyond speeches and protest signs.

Many across the City of Memphis are celebrating history in artistic ways.

A new exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum is called “A Legacy Remembered,” and features the photographs and documents of King and the people in his life.

King’s youngest daughter, Dr. Bernice King, visited the exhibit during a pre-opening ceremony on Monday.

She said his words remind her how inspirational his leadership was for equality. ? 

 “I think if we got focused like that, everybody, we can make some changes in this world. Not just his voice his heart and his spirit. ?I wish we had more leaders like that in our world today. We need it desperately.”   

The exhibit also recognizes lasting impacts of those who played a crucial role in King’s life. Carolyn Champion, daughter of Lorraine Motel owners Loree Catherine and Walter Bailey, stopped next to a recreated motel guest book dated April 3, 1968 -- a piece of the exhibit honoring her own family. 

“I’m just especially happy they have included my parents,” she said. “You know, to let [people] know what the hotel was really about because they worked very hard on it, so I’m especially pleased about that.”  

The gallery also includes rare images from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike taken by legendary Memphis photographer Ernest Withers.

Withers’ daughter, Rosalind Withers, recreated one of his famous images during the MLK 50 commemoration on Wednesday.  

“This history was with a price,” she said. “A very, very severe price. So, how do we take that and make it better for not just African Americans, but for human beings?”

At nearby Clayborn Temple, which served as a gathering spot for those sanitation workers in 1968, the Iris Orchestra joined the Memphis Black Arts Alliance and University of Memphis Symphony to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy.

Children watched in awe as people of all ages sang, danced, and performed. Joining them was civil rights activist Rev. Harold Middlebrook. He worked with King up until his assassination.

Credit Photograph by Angela Kim
Reverend Harold Middlebrook, leader of the Civil Rights Movement, speaks to audiences.

“To see young people who are beginning to pick up the valor, pick up the mantle and go forward,” Middlebrook said. “It’s time for a change and I am convinced that young people can help motivate us and challenge us to make the change necessary.”

The program reminded young people that Dr. King had a love of the arts.

Larjuanette Williams, president of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, said art movements of today help engage new activists.

“The youth have always been a part of change in this country. Period. The Civil Rights Movement was moved at the hands of youth.” Williams explains. “So, this is our opportunity to pull some singers, dancers, some people that are poets, people that are rappers, the orchestra . . . together to actually say ‘Yes, Dr. King, we hear you, we heard you and we want to move this positively forward.’”

For Memphis native Nubia Yasin, it wasn’t her first performance in Clayborn Temple. She recited an original poem during the performances and was inspired by the atmosphere in the building. Yasin said it’s up to artists to tell the stories of the unseen.

“Me and the artists around me who may look like me, who may be from similar backgrounds as I am, to tell our story and be unrelenting in doing so because there are still so many people that don’t believe that they exist.” Yasin explains. “So, it’s important that we continue to tell our stories, just like Martin Luther King told the stories of the people that he led.”

The show ended with the audience walking through the plaza where the city of Memphis has installed a new “I AM a Man” monument.