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Birmingham residents, groups commemorate 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death

BCRI Legacy Youth Leadership alumnus Jasmine Fells speaks at the commemorative event in observance of Dr. King's death. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., for The Birmingham Times).
By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times

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Outside, recordings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches blared over speakers in front of Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Inside the institute, Dennis Pope, a professional voice impressionist, recited part of King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery.

Those were some of the sounds as thousands of patrons converged on the BCRI to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

King was struck down at 6:01 p.m. on April 4, 1968, by a bullet as he stood on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where he went to support striking sanitation workers.

His death came a day following his “Mountaintop” speech delivered on the night of April 3, 1968, at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. It was his last speech.

On Wednesday, commemoration ceremonies were held across the globe and Birmingham was no different.

At 6:01 p.m. a moment of silence was observed to mark the time King was assassinated.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) hosted a “Dream Keeper” symposium to honor the legacy of King. The symposium, “Economic Justice and Transformative Innovation: Acknowledging the Past While Advancing the Future” hosted 250 high school students from the Jefferson County area.

Later in the evening, the SCLC hosted an awards banquet at the Sheraton Grand Ballroom. The celebration, entitled “A Golden Halo Commemoration fit for a King,” honored King’s legacy by recognizing individuals who have continued doing his work. Award Recipients included: Alabama native and Apple CEO, Tim Cook; Woke Vote Founder, DeJuana Thompson; Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama President, Isabel Rubio; and Birmingham Business Resource Center President, Robert Dickerson.

Staffers at the BCRI marked the commemoration as they continued to celebrate the Institute’s 25th anniversary with programming related to the Civil Rights Movement and a special emphasis on the events that happened in Birmingham.

BCRI opened in 1992.

During the 50th anniversary commemoration of Dr. King’s death, Virginia Volker recalls growing up in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., for The Birmingham Times)

A 10 a.m. press event featured the words of three Foot Soldiers from the Movement – the Rev. Carolyn McKinstry, Virginia Volker and Jeff Drew.

McKinstry remembered being a 14-year-old at the very first mass meeting at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, of which she was a member. She recalled the galvanizing messages of King and “his lieutenants.”  She said she was awestruck by energy and the power that emitted from that room.

“What I knew for sure,” McKinstry said, “was I wanted to be a part of what was going on.”

Volker credited King and the thousands who marched in Birmingham and across the nation that “saved the soul of America from my generation. For this, I am grateful.”

“Through his message and his actions, (King) reaffirmed … that all human beings have inherent worth.”

Drew called himself a fly on the wall when the Civil Rights Movement got started when he was 7 years old.

“For the most part, it has worked. It proved that love can conquer hate,” he said. “But we have not yet succeeded in fulfilling the dream of Martin King. We have got quite a long way to go.”

Jasmine Fells, an alumnus the BCRI Youth Leadership Program, spoke on behalf of rising generations. She noted the significance of the information chronicled at the institute, saying, “If you fail to learn history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

BCRI President and CEO Andrea Taylor noted other events that are planned as the institute continues to celebrate its first quarter century. Those events include:

Activities to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail on April 16 and the 55th anniversary of the Children’s Crusade on May 5.

FedEx sponsored free admission to BCRI in observance of the 50th anniversary.

“It is people like Dr. King who actually allowed changes to be made and for me to be here,” said FedEx’s Cheryl Orange, a Bessemer native. “FedEx has a special connection to Dr. King’s legacy and a special opportunity to unite effort, resources and people to celebrate his message of fairness and inclusion for everyone.”

Details of these and other events are available at www.bcri.org.