Dozens of silver bells rang out 39 times on April 4 from the base of Stone Mountain in celebration of the legacy of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony was one of thousands held around the state, country and the world on the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
More than 100 local, state and federal elected officials, community leaders and civilians gathered in Memorial Hall at Stone Mountain Park for the occasion.
Among them were commissioners, mayors, state representatives, senators, current and former Congressmen, civil rights activists and family members of foot soldiers of the movement who spent a lifetime fighting for rights alongside King.
Standing under the world’s largest Confederate monument – Stone Mountain’s 1.5-acre carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson – a dozen speakers took turns interpreting King’s legacy and the work that still needs to be done to realize his dream.
State Rep. Sandra Scott (D-Rex) said we must be reminded that King’s work to bring racial, social and economic equality was not stopped by a bullet on a balcony in Memphis.
“Let us recall how far we have come as a nation and as a society, yet let us remain committed to the journey ahead, for there’s still work to do,” said Scott, who represents House District 76 in Henry County.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but we must continue to stand and stay woke.”
King was 39 years old when he was shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
He died at 7:01 p.m., the time at which his children Martin Luther King III, Bernice King and Dexter Scott King, his sister Christine King Farris, his granddaughter Yolanda Renee King and other family members rang a large silver bell at The King Center in Atlanta on Wednesday, in front of his and his wife Coretta Scott King’s tombs at the King Center.
That ceremony was attended by more than a thousand people who filled the streets of Auburn Avenue.
Cindy Moffett of Atlanta, who was in the crowd, said it’s more critical now to stand up and be active citizens.
“We can’t just live off of works he did 50 years ago if we want his vision to go further,” she said.
King family members also placed a wreath at King’s tomb.
As they walked around the reflecting pool surrounding the white marble tombs, a woman’s voice rose above the crowd, singing “My living won’t be in vain.” Many people wiped tears from their faces.
Members of King’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity also placed a wreath on the historic Ebenezer Heritage Sanctuary, where King served alongside his father.
The Stone Mountain ceremony harkened to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he said: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
Plans are afoot by the Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council to erect a replica of the Liberty Bell on top of Stone Mountain, where the ceremony was originally to take place until inclement weather intervened.
Park authorities suspended operations of the cable car to the 825-foot-tall summit because of high winds.
Rusty Haygood, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, said that given that there was still much to do in achieving equality and realizing King’s dream, the changed location was fitting.
“It’s probably poignant for us to be here looking at the mountain top right now, and to see that yes, there is something to work for,” he said. “We’ve got work to do.”
Fourth District U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson reflected on what King would see looking at America now – 50 years since his death and 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation.
Johnson said he believed King would be proud that an African-American president had been elected twice, serving without scandal, and that he would be proud of the nation’s youth who have united to march for common causes.
But Johnson said the seat of power in America has been overtaken by “racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia.”
“I believe that Dr. King would be alarmed by the prospect of a deranged individual starting a nuclear war that could consume humanity,” Johnson said.
“I’m certain that Dr. King, with the fierce urgency of now, would boldly challenge us all to let freedom ring,” he said.
DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, who delivered the ceremony’s keynote address, urged everyone to dedicate themselves to fulfilling King’s work, and to remember that during his life, King was not the “demigod” that people today make him out to be.
“He was a despised man,” Thurmond said. “We don’t like to remember that. He was a radical person.”
Thurmond said black men must be valued, as should people of all colors and creeds.
He said King’s life paralleled that of Moses, who too “led his people out of discrimination and poverty and despair, and on a sojourn through the wilderness.”
“These two great leaders led their people to the precipice. Both died without ever setting foot in the promised land,” Thurmond said.
Paris Murphy-Doctor, niece of the late Dr. Rita Jackson Samuels, a champion of women’s and civil rights who worked alongside King, spoke briefly at the ceremony, and Samuel’s 9-year-old great-nephew Bryce Love was a bell ringer.
Samuels, a founding member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council, died on March 27 at age 72.
A proclamation from Gov. Nathan Deal, recognizing the ceremony and its significance, was presented to Sen. Emanuel Jones, chairman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council.
Camryn McGregor, a University of West Georgia student, reminded the crowded room that hate can only be driven out by love. She said freedom must be demanded by the oppressed.
“We are still marching on and we ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around,” she said.