Hundreds of visitors of all ages and ethnicities flooded the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on Wednesday evening for a candlelight vigil on the 44th anniversary of the civil rights activist's assassination. The memorial's foundation organized the one-hour event, which was emceed by National Urban League President Marc Morial and featured speakers including author Michael Eric Dyson and Christine Chávez, granddaughter of labor activist César Chávez. It concluded with a wreath-laying at the foot of the memorial's sculpture of King.
"Before there was any memorial to Dr. King, to his great and extraordinary life, April 4 had always been a day to remember him," Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told the crowd. "We are especially grateful that this year, for the first time, there is a special and unique place to come in his remembrance."
Although speakers reflected on the legacy of King, each also stressed the need to reaffirm and commit to justice and peace.
Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, remarked on King's relationship with labor, noting that he died in Memphis, Tenn., when he was helping sanitation workers there organize for better wages, working conditions and benefits and basic dignity. "We've come a long way from that day 44 years ago, yet in 2012 two things are clear," he said. "Much remains to be done, and much of what Dr. King stood for is being undone in 2012."
Arun Manilal Gandhi, a grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, was soft-spoken but firm in his assessment that much of this nation has done a disservice to the memories of both King and his grandfather. "We have looked at the philosophy of nonviolence as a weapon, as a strategy to be employed when convenient. But it is not a weapon; it is a way of life," he said. "We have failed the revolution, and so we still continue to languish in this mire of hate and prejudice. I think it's time for us to wake up and do something so that the dream that both these people shared will not go wasted."
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman pointed out that when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, it was actually his second time giving the speech, having delivered an earlier version at a much smaller march in Detroit. "What was different is that the world was watching and listening," she said. "My friends, whether it is Trayvon Martin or any of our nation's children, whether it is the elderly who go to bed hungry at night, whether it is the fight for workers' rights, for which Dr. King gave his life on the battlefield for justice, we should not have to wait for the world to be watching and listening in order to do what is right, what is just, what is fair."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.