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At 6:01, The Bells Toll for a King

Photos by Erin Conway

Fifty years ago today, a shot rang out in Memphis. A different ringing will be heard today to mark the moment Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.


Bell ringers across the country will join together for a tribute to the slain civil rights icon. Some view it as a way to transform a moment of pain into a moment of unity.



A bell sits high above Rhodes College campus, in the Richard Halliburton Memorial Tower. It chimes daily, but president Dr. Marjorie Hass says this afternoon the ringing will take on a different tone.

“To me, the bells represent our voices and the need for us to raise our voices in solidarity with the things that he was fighting for: racial justice, economic justice,” Hass said.

Across town at Christian Brothers University, president Dr. John Smarrelli Jr. says it is natural that his college joins the tribute. CBU was among the first integrated post-secondary schools in Memphis.

“When you see the magnitude of schools getting together and this is what we believe in. We believe in equality. We believe in solidarity. We believe in the values of Dr. King,” Smarrelli said.

Colleges make up just some of the 200 institutions worldwide taking part in the commemoration. Most of the bells will be ringing from churches across the nation. Preparations for the moment have been underway since February, says Peggy McClure of Idlewild Presbyterian Church.

“I’m just really proud that our church can participate in something that is as significant as this,” McClure said.

If any church is ready for this moment, it’s Idlewild. Its 120-foot tower holds 48 bells, a carillon of instruments ranging from twenty-nine pounds to two tons. In full force, a concert can be heard for miles.

Peggy McClure and David Caudill rehearse for Idlewild’s MLK concert on April Fourth, 2018.
Credit Photo by Erin Conway

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McClure is a carillonneur, someone who can play an entire arrangement on church bells. She has performed a whole concert dedicated to Dr. King.

And while joyous pealing is one way to celebrate his life, his passage will be marked with a toll. Vincent Astor, a communicant at Calvary Episcopal Church and ringer of the Calvary bell on feast days, explains that there is a technique to the art of tolling.

“My hand on the rope is going to represent the allies. Striking it once, and once again, is not the easiest thing to do,” Astor said.

Astor recently gave instruction to bell ringers participating in today’s commemoration outside the National Civil Rights Museum. The bell to be used in the ceremony at 6:01 p.m. was brought from the tower at Clayborn Temple nearby. It will be pulled by three students from Soulsville Charter School along with two staff members from the museum.

Deondra Henderson, operations manager at Clayborn Temple, says the bell is on loan for the event because of the church’s connection to the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968.

“We are so excited to hear it ring tomorrow for the national bell ringing. Our bell will ring first,” Henderson said.

Kendra Lewis is one of the five volunteers who are ringing it. Tolling the bell must be done carefully so that the clapper only strikes once. Lewis will pass off the rope to a new set of hands after a toll is done in unison.

“Everything that I have been doing in my community all this time, you know it wasn't in vain. I’m here. I’m here doing this. A part of something that is impacting the whole world,” Lewis said.

Beginning at 6:01, in far-flung bell towers in the world, each bell will start to ring -- for 39 times. Once for each year of King’s momentous life.