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Youths pledge nonviolence on anniversary of Martin Luther King's death

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is seen in Washington in this file photo taken August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is seen in Washington in this file photo taken August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Honoring the memory of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the 45th anniversary of his assassination, dozens of young people pledged at a ceremony on Thursday to embrace his message of nonviolence as a way of life.

The King Center in Atlanta commemorated its namesake by kicking off "the 50 Days of Nonviolence," a challenge for youth to abstain from violence for the rest of the school year.

"I hope Martin Luther King, my daddy, did not die in vain," said Bernice King, his daughter and chief executive of the King Center. "We must repent and change our direction and minds."

Her speech began at 7:01 p.m. EST, the exact time her father was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.

King led the group of young people in taking the pledge to commit themselves to nonviolence.

A wreath was placed on the front of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King had preached, in the same spot where one was placed the day after his death.

King, who advocated nonviolence, racial brotherhood and equal rights, rose to prominence after leading the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, which began in December 1955 after Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. King went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

In 1968, he traveled to Memphis to support sanitation workers striking against unfair working conditions and low pay. King was shot and killed while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel. He was 39.

James Earl Ray, a segregationist, confessed to the assassination, but recanted shortly afterward and tried for years to get a new trial. He died in prison in 1998 while serving a 99-year sentence.

The hotel is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, which on Thursday commemorated King's death with a labor union rally, wreath-laying and panel discussion including Alvin Turner, a retired sanitation worker who participated in the strike.

"It's been 45 years since the assassination, and it's been 45 years that the country's struggle has continued for equality and freedom," said Barbara Andrews, director of education for the National Civil Rights Museum.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which organized the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis, marched from the local union office to the museum.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Cooney)