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Orleanians remember ‘The Dreamer’

9th April 2018   ·   0 Comments

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 people gathered in Memphis, Tennessee and others paused across the U.S. and around the world to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King, who headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was in Memphis preparing to lead a Poor People’s Campaign that supported a strike by local sanitation workers when his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet when he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was 39.

Events in Memphis included a march that attracted about 10,000 participants, among them the Rev. James Lawson, who invited King to the city 50 years ago to support the underpaid sanitation workers.



“I’m still anxious and frustrated,” Lawson said Wednesday. “The task is unfinished.”

Martin Luther King III addressed the crowd at the end of the march, reminding participants that those in the struggle today are still fighting battles against poverty, racism and war. “There’s something wrong in our nation where a minimum of 48 million people are living in poverty,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. We must do better. America should be embarrassed about having people living in poverty.”

“Dr. King’s work — our work — isn’t done,” Lee Saunders, a national labor leader, said at a gathering at Memphis’ Mason Temple Church of God in Christ Tuesday night. “We must still struggle; we must still sacrifice. We must still educate and organize and mobilize. That’s why we’re here in Memphis. Not just to honor our history, but to seize our future.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama recorded a video about Dr. King that was shored with those at Mason Temple COGIC Tuesday night.

“As long as we’re still trying, Dr. King’s soul is still rejoicing,” Obama said on the video.

Speaking in Atlanta, where her father was born and raised, the Rev. Bernice King said that as painful as it was to lose King to an assassin’s bullet, she wouldn’t change history or the role her parents played in the Civil Rights Movement.

“Actually, I’m glad that everything happened the way that it happened because I can’t imagine the world that we live in without the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King and the sacrifice that they made,” she told The Associated Press.

New Orleans native and former King aide Andrew Young, 86, shared a moving story last week about his final moments with the civil rights leader at the Lorraine Motel before he was assassinated.

“When I walked in the door, he [Martin Luther King Jr.] said, ‘Where have you been? You haven’t called me all day long,’” said Young, who had been working with King on civil rights issues since 1957. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve been in court.’”

Earlier that day, Young had testified in federal court to get a restraining order lifted on the march in support of Memphis sanitation workers, who had been on strike since early February.

“He said, ‘Well, you need to find a way to get me a message,’” Young, the former U.S. ambassador and Atlanta mayor told ABC News, adding that A.D. King and Ralph Abernathy, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a longtime cohort of Martin Luther King Jr., were also in the room. “I said, ‘I was on the witness stand trying to get you the right to march and keep you out of jail.’”

Martin Luther King Jr. responded, “’Oh, you’re getting smart with me’ and he picked up a pillow and threw it at me,” Young said. “And he was in a more playful mood than I had seen him in years, I mean, acting like a child. I threw the pillow back and then everybody else picked up pillows and started beating me up. It was like a bunch of 12-year-olds.”

Young told ABC News that abandoning the struggle for justice and equality has never been an option for those who worked closely with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement.

“It’s something we had to do. We had no choice,” Young said. “I think we were all committed. One of the movement’s philosophies was that if somebody was struck down doing good, whatever you were doing you had to stop it and continue his works. So as soon as we came back from the hospital, we met back in his room and decided that we would have to carry on.

“And for 50 years, we’ve done that,” Young added. “Even though his body is no longer with us, his spirit is. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never been any place where somebody didn’t ask me about Martin Luther King, and that’s more than 150 countries. He has had a continued impact on the world.”

On a recent segment that aired on “CBS Sunday Morning,” former New Orleans First Lady Sybil Haydel Morial, told her son, National Urban League President Marc Morial about her friendship with King during their college studies in Boston.

“Martin was very popular,” she recalled. “He had a wonderful, warm, outgoing personality. But he had something that not many people had during that time—he had a car. So, whenever he asked for a date, everyone said yes!” she laughed.

“He didn’t ask you out, did he?” Marc asked.

“He didn’t ask me out,” Sybil laughed. “No, no. He was Martin to me. He was Martin until he died.”

Mrs. Morial said she and her husband, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the city of New Orleans’ first Black mayor, made sure their children knew all about Dr. King and his legacy.

“We felt this is the reality,” said Sybil. “This is what we are. We are fighting for this. And you are part of this fight as our children. We felt strongly that we wanted you to be steeped in what was happening in this country.”

She described what it felt like to learn that King had been assassinated in Memphis 50 years ago.

“I was heartbroken—heartbroken that his voice had been silenced, that his voice that could corral thousands of people to use non-violence, to not be afraid, to step out, his voice was shut down,” said Morial.

Was she angry? “I was angry. And I was sad.”

Five days later he was laid to rest in Atlanta. He was just 39.

Marc Morial asked, “What did you think at the time the effect of losing Martin Luther King would be on the Civil Rights Movement?”

“I said that very thing to your father,” recalled Sybil. “I said, ‘Oh, we’ve lost our leader. What’s going to become of the Civil Rights Movement? He’s gone!’
“’It will go on’—he said it very deliberately.”

During the Jim Crow area, Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement who came to New Orleans could always find a delicious meal and a safe meeting place at Dooky Chase’s restaurant in the heart of the Faubourg Tremé.

With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference being founded in New Orleans, Xavier University offering refuge to Freedom Riders, a number of Freedom Riders and MLK Jr. aide Andrew Young all hailing from the Crescent City, the city is well-versed in civil rights history.

One who knows that history all too well is Leah Chase, a legendary chef and businesswoman who recently shared her memories of Dr. King with FOX 8 News.

“He would come at night, he wasn’t a man to sit at a table and enjoy his life,” she recalled.

In addition to offering the civil rights leaders and others a safe place to meet and a hot meal, Chase offered them refuge and a sense of home in the midst of the turbulent times brought on by efforts to challenge segregation, injustice and inequality.

“They all made their plans here, and I fed them before they left,” she said.

Dr. King, and the Freedom Riders were frequent diners, helping orchestrate the push for civil rights in New Orleans and across the South. They knew it was dangerous, but when King was assassinated, Chase said she was stunned.

“It was painful, for me. How do you die for something you believe in? How do you do that?” said Chase.

It’s a piece of New Orleans restaurant history, many customers know little about.

“It’s amazing, and I’m even more proud to be here today. Dr. King meant so much to me and my family,” Chris Firle, a visitor from California, told FOX 8 News.

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a watershed moment in American history, and it, too, has a New Orleans connection. As reported by The New York Times, King was encouraged to do the speech by New Orleans-born gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who frequently appeared by his side and sang before he spoke in Washington that day.

“Mahalia said, ‘Say that speech, deliver that speech,’ and that’s the best thing he could have done,” said Chase, who knew both King and Jackson. “Mahalia was in here all the time. She was something else… she was always made-up beautifully.”

Chase said the death of Dr. King should serve as a reminder to all.

“That’s what keeps me going,” Chase said. “When I think about someone giving their life for me, I’d better work.”

And at 95 years young, that’s exactly what she continues to do.

Leah Chase also knew Martin Luther King Sr., who was also a frequent visitor to the restaurant. She said they and several other civil rights notables, including Israel Augustine and Thurgood Marshall, often planned marches, voting drives and political activities out of her restaurant.

This article originally published in the April 9, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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