The bell tolled 39 times.
Thirty-nine, for each year of a life cut short.
Each toll a reminder of Auburn Avenue. Morehouse. Montgomery. Birmingham. Selma. Oslo. Memphis.
Against the backdrop of a their parents’ crypt, which sat on an island in the middle of a crystal blue reflecting pool, members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, including his children — Bernice, Dexter and Martin III — rang a large silver bell in honor of their father’s life and legacy.
The siblings, with the wives of Martin III and Dexter and King’s only granddaughter, then placed a wreath on the crypt.
“If I can help somebody, my living will not be in vain,” a woman sang. It was part of a King sermon — which King himself had paraphrased from a Mahalia Jackson gospel song.
In a brief interview after the ceremony, Bernice King said that she has yet to fully experience the grief of losing her father.
“There’s a lot of emotion there that has not been dealt with, frankly,” she said. “Although there’ve been moments of grieving, I don’t think it’s complete. It’s hard, because although he’s entombed, he still lives. He lives with us every day on the streets that are named after him, here at the King Center. As we go around the nation, we invoke his name, our mother’s name. All that is very difficult.”
An hour before the bell ceremony, Bernice had stepped into her father’s pulpit and — a preacher like her dad, using his cadences and speech patterns — delivered the last lines of King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
It really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
“My father literally fought his entire life to ensure the inclusion of all people because he understood that we were intertwined and connected together in humanity,” Bernice King said. “He understood that we must respect the dignity and worth of all people. He fought for justice, equality and peace.”
After speaking, King took a seat in the front row of the church while her father’s fraternity brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, sang the fraternal hymn.
In what might have been one of the busiest days in the history of the National Historic Park, by 5 p.m., the tours and visits had given way to a solemn program at the church hosted by NPS Superintendent Judy Forte, “Memphis to Atlanta.”
“Let us face today’s task of being the beaconing spirit he embodied,” Forte said.
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which King joined in 1952 while studying at Boston University, placed a large wreath in front of the pulpit.
“Everything,” said Greg Gray, president of the Decatur chapter of the fraternity. “He means everything to Alpha. One of the first things we like to say when people ask us about Alpha is that Martin Luther King Jr. is my frat brother.”
Annamarta Mugaas traveled from Norway, via New York City, with a husband, three children and a friend to visit Atlanta on the anniversary of King’s assassination.
“It is important for the kids to know the history,” Mugaas’ friend, Raghild Simenstad, said as the group stood in front of the crypt of Martin and Coretta Scott King. “Even Norwegian kids.”
And American kids, like 5-year-old Zhariel Wright.
Throughout Black History Month, Zhariel and her fellow kindergartners learned about King and Rosa Parks. Wright went home and told her mother everything she’d learned.
Keisha Morrison-Wright was so impressed that she made her daughter a promise: during spring break the family would travel to Atlanta from their home in Coral Springs, Florida, to visit the King National Historic Park. On Wednesday, the family made its way from the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change to the King birth home on Auburn Avenue.
The tour of the house is usually narrated by National Park Service rangers, but Wednesday it was billed as a “silent tour” in honor of King. Rangers invited visitors to reflect on his legacy as they peered into rooms staged to look as they would have when King was a child.
At the end of the tour, Zhariel talked about what she’d learned about King in school.
“I learned that he was a great black man who standed up for black people,” she said.
Her mother said, however, that Wednesday’s trip cleared up a misunderstanding on Zhariel’s part.
“She thought Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were married, so when we were in the King Center I showed her a picture of Coretta and said, ‘No, this is his wife. Don’t let Coretta hear you say that about Rosa.’”
Carolyn Gay, 69, of Atlanta took her granddaughter, Ciara Perry, 8, to the King birth home. Gay said she remembers the day of the assassination. There were heavy rain clouds that seemed foreboding.
“I didn’t know he had passed until I got off the bus from work and when I got to the house, my mom was crying and the whole neighborhood was in an uproar,” Gay said.
At the time she lived off Northside Drive.
She and her granddaughter had toured the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church earlier in the day. The sanctuary was filled with tourists and King’s “Mountaintop” sermon blared from the loudspeakers. Gay said she couldn’t listen and had to leave.
“I couldn’t take it,” Gay said. “It was too hard.”
The day was also about King’s legacy and what to make of it.
"I often wonder if we know what we had in Martin Luther King," said Lisa Fenn of Atlanta. "And the legacy that he left. When we consider some of the realities that are going on today — clearly poverty, mass incarceration, they are our issues — I just hope and pray and plead that we continue the work.
"What struck me most about today was . . . when we can understand what hate is, it enables us to grasp love and to put love in action."
Unfinished business was a common theme among those who gathered to honor King.
“This is a moment for us to be unified in his message for social justice,” said A.J. Johnson, pastor of the Urban Hope Refuge Church in Hartford. “But 50 years later, we are also here to remember his work that was unfinished or inconclusive.”
Without saying it, Johnson pointed out several things that King was lobbying for through his Poor People’s Campaign — ending poverty and creating fair housing. King was killed before a planned march to Washington.
“We are still dealing with the same issues today,” Johnson said. “We have had a taste of justice, but not the whole dream.”
At the crypt, where the bodies of King and his wife rest, the water tone was noticeably bright blue. The King Center and the National Historic Park, spent the past year sprucing up both spots. The new blue tile in the reflecting pool was stunning on this chilly anniversary.
Anthony Davis held his 4-year-old daughter Taylor up for a selfie, while his other daughters, Kimberly, 15, and Madison, 10, beamed.
Davis who is from Atlanta, said the trip represented a continuum of his family’s legacy. He has told his daughters stories handed down to him about his family’s struggles, including the story about the old oak tree in South Carolina where one of his distant uncles was lynched.
“It is important for them to understand the linkage. To better understand the stories that my parents used to tell me,” Davis said. “And as an African-American, everyone is intimately involved in King’s story.”
Erez Inbal, who grew up in Isreal with his wife, Shirley, visited the crypt with their daughter Noga, an eighth-grader in Alpharetta, who has been studying King in school.
“I wanted to come down here and learn about him myself,” Noga said. “The textbook definition of him is so narrow. I wanted a more rounded view.”
MLK stories elsewhere
In Memphis: Channel 2 Action News reports that a huge crowd turned out at the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed. The motel, now the headquarters of the National Civil Rights Museum, opened a new exhibit called "MLK50: A Legacy Remembered" on Wednesday.
It’s a sacred place for many.
“I wanted to remember Dr. King," Peggy Vanderbilt told WSB-TV. "I’m getting emotional now, I'm sorry. Just to remember him because he did a lot for us. And I thank God that he did come along to help us out.”
In Washington: President Donald Trump said it’s up to people, not government, to achieve the ideals expressed by King.
"In remembrance of his profound and inspirational virtues, we look to do as Dr. King did while this world was privileged enough to still have him," Trump’s proclamation said.