LOS ANGELES — A small group led by community activist Najee Ali blocked traffic on Crenshaw Boulevard around 4 p.m. April 4 in a brief tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, who was killed at about that time 50 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee.
The traffic was blocked for 39 seconds in honor of King, who was 39 when he was killed.
Dallas Fowler, Lawanda Hawkins from the Justice For Murdered Children organization, and the mother of Anthony Weber Demetra Johnson, joined Ali in the brief demonstration.
They carried a piece of cardboard that had pictures of black people who had been killed by police.
“Today we had direct action … to draw attention to the fact that Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago and 50 years later things still haven’t changed for the better for black people,” Ali said. He said that the best way to honor King is to continue to demand justice and to fight for what’s right.
For Hawkins, remembering King’s legacy is also her way of honoring her mother, who marched with King during the 1957 March on Washington, which was held to commemorate the third anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education ruling that helped end school segregation.
While Ali was blocking Crenshaw Boulevard, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was in Memphis, commemorating the legacy of King.
Ridley-Thomas said he was a 13-year-old student on campus at George Washington Carver Junior High School in South L.A. when news of the civil rights leader’s death broke.
King had been invited to Memphis by the Rev. James Lawson, a Methodist minister active in the civil rights movement, to support striking sanitation workers. King delivered what would be his final sermon —“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” — less than 24 hours before he was gunned down on a second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel.
“There were non-stop announcements on television, on radio,” Ridley-Thomas said, recalling that King’s speeches “dominated the airways” for the next two weeks.
“That was a turning point in my life as it relates to the philosophy of non-violence,” he said.
Ridley-Thomas traveled to Memphis to join Lawson and other elected officials, clergy, labor leaders, academics and entertainers in paying tribute to King. Other Southlanders who made the trip included the Rev. Charles E. Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ and longtime Los Angeles labor leader Maria Elena Durazo.
“We are paying our respects and making the appropriate contributions that we can make to the conversation about the unfinished business of Dr. King,” Ridley-Thomas said.
In King’s final speech, he urged his audience to “redistribute the pain” by boycotting companies that refused to treat workers fairly and instead supporting black-owned banks and insurance companies.
“We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles, we don’t need any Molotov cocktails, we just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right,’” King said.
Ridley-Thomas said that “the struggle continues, there’s no denying that. Many view this particular point in time as a huge setback for the agenda of justice in the United States of America.”
The supervisor spent April 4 joining in mass meetings and a march, and to “keep fighting, keep struggling, keep preaching, keep teaching, keep practicing non-violent philosophy and direct action.”
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass also spent April 4 in Memphis. Her office issued a statement on the anniversary of King’s death.
“Fifty years ago, our country, and this world, lost a beacon guiding a movement of equality by the north star of justice,” Bass said. “Today, we, as generations united for peace, celebrate the humble legacy and noble teachings that Dr. King imparted to us. We celebrate through service for our brothers and sisters who have less than we have. We celebrate by fighting for those whose rights are being infringed upon. We celebrate with resistance to racism in the caves in which it lurks.
“Today, we not only remember a dream. Today we reaffirm that the dream of Dr. King is the dream of our nation. Dr. King lives on in our fight, he lives on in our struggle and he lives on in our peace.”
The Community Coalition, a group that Bass founded more than 25 years ago, also issued a statement about King.
“Fifty years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., our country feels more divided than ever, as we are entrenched in the same epic struggle for which he sacrificed his life,” said Alberto Retana, president of the coalition. “The unrelenting persistence of racism emboldened by the rise of white nationalism, mass incarceration, the senseless killings of black and brown people by police officers and the growing economic inequality are but just a few of the issues impacting our daily lives.
“As we take this day to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, we must continue to call out the fact that his work remains unfinished and we must also decide who we want to be as a city and as a nation. We know numerous challenges are yet to come, but that also means change is possible. So, with the reverberation of the voices of young people in our ears, we must commit to the continued fight for justice and equity that has yet to be realized.”