Under the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday night in North Las Vegas, 10-year-old Alyssa Taylor grabbed the microphone. “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come,” she sang. “Oh, yes it will.”
Her voice, smooth and powerful as she recited Sam Cooke’s 1964 classic, reverberated through a crowd of about 100 who gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
“Fifty years ago today, we lost our King,” said Craig Knight, a radio host for KCEP-radio, FM 88.1, which organized the vigil and broadcast the event.
“We have a very diverse crowd, and that’s what Martin Luther King stood for,” he said. “What if we judged people by the content of our character and not the color of our skin? Where would we be if we started that 50 years ago?”
Lady K.A., another host for the station, cautioned the crowd not to fixate on King’s most famous speech.
“We’re not going to reduce him to a dream,” she said. “We’re going to talk about the steps that he realized that we needed to take. That’s the King that was assassinated.”
As the sky darkened, the glow of battery-lit candles in people’s hands began to show at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Carey Avenue. Sekou Kala proudly wore the American flag stitched on his shirt, and on the back, words that he had glued for the night’s event: “We are one, no matter what they say.”
Edward McKinley Smith, 63, wore a straw hat and clapped along to the motivational speakers, which included spiritual leaders and other prominent members of Las Vegas’ black community.
“I want to see unity!” he shouted. “And I want us to not be afraid.”
Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, who represents residents in parts of west Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, described the day the 5-ton, 12-foot tall sculpture was unveiled 17 years ago by artist Tina Allen and Martin Luther King III.
“I ask today, as we commemorate 50 years of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., if not you, then who?” Weekly said. “And if not now, then when? And if not today, why not? I guess the question is, ‘What are you gonna do?’”
Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud’s father, William “Bob” Bailey, a Las Vegas civil rights activist, was a friend of King’s from their days in the glee club at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
He made the phone call in 1964 that brought King to speak at the local NAACP chapter’s Freedom Banquet and at a public rally, both held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, she said.
Bailey-Tureaud said his speech focused on something that is still prominent today in west Las Vegas: economic disparity.
“We have surpassed the fight because of the color of our skin; we now have to get in the war as it pertains to economic inclusion,” she said.
Bailey-Tureaud said her dad pointed out how King was shocked by the amount of security greeting him at the airport, at a time when racial tensions were high in Las Vegas.
“Dr. King realized that his life was in jeopardy, even right here in Las Vegas,” she said. “Because he did have a dream, but also he had a talk and he had a walk.”
Franklyn Verley, 58, and the executive producer for KCEP, remembered clearly the day King was assassinated. He was 8 when he watched his uncle’s doctor’s office go up in flames during riots in Washington, D.C., and saw all of his family crying.
Wednesday, he said he hoped that the young people in attendance would learn from King’s message.
“They may have extinguished his life, but they haven’t extinguished his light,” Verley said.