Atlanta marks 50 years since King’s funeral services

ATLANTA (AP) — Relatives of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led more than 1,000 people on a march Monday in downtown Atlanta, where large crowds gathered 50 years earlier for the slain civil rights leader’s funeral procession as a mule-drawn wagon pulled his casket through the streets.

On Monday, people sang the spiritual “This Little Light of Mine” and waved signs with slogans such as “Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free” as the march left Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once preached. Two of King’s children, the Rev. Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, locked arms as they walked at the front of the march.

King’s granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, and the Rev. Al Sharpton also took part in the march covering just over 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) for a rally at the grounds of the Georgia state Capitol, where marchers were greeted by the Martin Luther King Jr. High School marching band.

Los Angeles native Bill Watkins, 45, rode 55 hours to attend the march and rally. He felt compelled to make trip in support of the King family and the civil rights movement.

Watkins said the march was “all about telling the truth and honoring a man who stood in love.” He stood with North Carolina native Terence Coleman, 24, and Georgia State student Amanda Bernall, 21, holding an American flag with an image of King’s face and the words “A lie cannot live” written across it.

Rapper T.I. said taking part in the march was important to him because King “blazed a trail for us to have liberty and freedom, and all the luxuries we enjoy today.”

T.I. hopes the new generation can follow in King’s footsteps to change social injustice in the black community.

“You can’t get so comfortable in our luxuries to where we think that there is no more work to be done,” he said. “There’s always work to be done. As long as every generation does their part, carries it on, passes the torch to the next one, then we’ll start seeing some progress.”

The march followed an invitation-only church service at Ebenezer, including prominent friends and admirers such as King confidant Andrew Young and comedian Chris Tucker.

Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former Atlanta mayor, said he still has not been able to accept King’s death five decades after his assassination April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

“He gave his life unlike I was able to,” Young said.

“I don’t know about in your heart, but in my heart Martin Luther King is very much alive. In my mind he’s very much alive,” Young said. “In spite of all the problems we have, (he) continues to reign among us, calling on us to do better and be the best that we can be.”

During the service, Yolanda King introduced a survivor of the deadly February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which turned high school students into activists demanding action against gun violence in the U.S.

“There’s injustices on our streets,” said Jaclyn Corin, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were killed. “Young people have changed things in the past, and we’re going to do it again.”

The events Monday in Atlanta followed a host of tributes honoring the slain civil rights leader last week. Cities across the U.S. marked the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

King was shot on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel while visiting Memphis for a sanitation workers strike. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the killing and quickly recanted, claiming he was set up. The conviction stood, and Ray died in prison in 1998.

Five days after King was shot, two funeral services were held in Atlanta on April 9, 1968. After a private funeral at Ebenezer, King’s casket was loaded into a wagon pulled by two mules for a 40-mile (6.4-kilometer) procession through downtown Atlanta.

Thousands lined the streets to view the casket on its trip to Morehouse College, where a public service was held at King’s alma mater.

At the church service Monday, Mary Gurley took the podium to reprise the mournful hymn she sang during King’s funeral five decades earlier.

“This is for you, M.L.,” she said before a solo performance of “My Heavenly Father,” which she sang as a young choir member. “This was our theme song.”

(Copyright (c) 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)