ATLANTA (AP) — America has honored Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday for nearly four decades, but still hasn’t fully absorbed the lessons of the slain civil rights activist, his youngest daughter said Monday.
The Rev. Bernice King, who directs the King Center in Atlanta, said leaders — especially politicians — too often devalue her father’s legacy as a “comfortable and convenient king” by offering easy platitudes.
“We love to quote King during and around the holiday season. … But then we refuse to live as King 365 days a year,” she said at a memorial service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father once preached.
The service, sponsored by the center and held annually in Ebenezer, was the centerpiece of the King’s 38th federal holiday celebration. King, who was gunned down in Memphis in 1968 while advocating for better pay and better working conditions for the city’s sanitation workers, would have celebrated his 94th birthday on Sunday.
Her voice rising and falling in cadences similar to her father’s, Bernice King lamented institutional and individual racism, economic and health inequality, police violence, a militarized international order, rigid immigration structures and the climate crisis. She said she was “exhausted, annoyed and frankly disappointed” to hear her father’s words about justice so widely quoted alongside “so little progress” on society’s biggest problems.
“He was God’s prophet sent to this nation and even to the world to guide us and warn us. … The prophetic word is uncomfortable because it calls us to change our hearts, minds and behavior,” said Bernice King. “Dr. King, the inconvenient king, makes some demands on us to change.”
On Monday, President Joe Biden was scheduled to speak at the MLK Breakfast hosted by the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Washington. Sharpton got his start as a civil rights organizer as a teenager as the youth director of King’s Southern Christian Conference Anti-Poverty Project.
“This is a time for choices,” Biden said, echoing themes from a speech he gave Sunday at Ebenezer on an invitation from Senator Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer, who recently won re-election for a full term as the first black US senator from Georgia.
“Will we choose democracy over autocracy or community over chaos? Love before hate?” Biden asked on Monday. “These are the questions of our time that I ran for president to try to answer. … Dr. King’s life and legacy, in my view, point the way forward.”
Other commemorations echoed Bernice King’s reminder and Biden’s hints that the “beloved community” — Martin Luther King Jr.’s descriptor for a world in which all people are free from fear, discrimination, hunger and violence — remains elusive.
In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu spoke about the struggle for truth in an age of hyper-partisanship and misinformation.
“We are fighting not just two sides, left or right, and the gradient between them, which must somehow come to a compromise, but a growing movement of hate, abuse, extremism and white supremacy fueled by misinformation, fueled by conspiracy theories that take root at all levels,” she said.
Wu, the first woman and person of color elected mayor of Boston, said education restores trust. Quoting King, she called for overcoming the “fatigue of despair” to effect change. “Sometimes in the moments when we feel the most tired, the most desperate, we’re just about to break through,” Wu told those in attendance at the memorial breakfast.
Volunteers in Philadelphia held a “day of service” dedicated to preventing gun violence. The city has seen a spike in homicides, with 516 killed last year and 562 the year before, the highest in six decades.
Some participants in a landmark project led by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia worked to assemble protective gun kits for public distribution. According to the organizers, the kits include “cable locks for guns and additional safety devices to protect children.” They also include information on firearms possession, information on health and social services, and dealing with the effects of gun violence.
Other kits being collected highlight Temple University Hospital’s “Fighting Chance” program and include supplies for immediate response to victims at the scene of a shooting, organizers said. Recipients must be trained to use supplies that include tourniquets, gauze, breast seals and other items to treat critical wounds, they said.
In Selma, Alabama, a city that became the epicenter of the civil rights movement, residents commemorated King as he recovered from deadly storm system that moved across the south last week.
King was not present at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during the first march known as “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers attacked and beat marchers in March 1965. But he joined a subsequent procession that successfully crossed the bridge toward the Capitol in Montgomery, highlighting the effort that prompted Congress to pass and President Lyndon Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Pettus Bridge was not damaged by Thursday’s storm.
Maine’s first Black House speaker urged residents Monday to honor King’s memory by joining in acts of service.
“His unwavering faith, powerful nonviolent activism, and his vision for peace and justice in our world changed the course of history,” Rachel Talbot Ross said in a statement. Talbot Ross is also the daughter of Maine’s first black state legislator and a former president of the Portland NAACP.
“We must follow his example of leading with light and love and renew our commitment to building a more compassionate, just and equal community,” she added.
At Ebenezer, Warnock, who led the congregation for 17 years, hailed his predecessor’s role in securing black Americans’ access to the vote. But like Bernice King, the senator cautioned against a reductive understanding of King.
“Don’t just call him a civil rights leader. He was a religious leader,” Warnock said. “Faith was the basis on which he did everything he did. You don’t run into dogs and water hoses because you read Nietzsche or Niebuhr. You have to touch this thing, the God he said he met again in Montgomery when someone threatened to bomb his house and kill his wife and newborn baby.
Warnock said King “left the comfort of the filter that made the whole world his parish” by turning faith into a “creative weapon of love and nonviolence.”
Echoing Bernice King’s call for bolder public policy, Warnock marked some progress in his lifetime. As during his two senatorial campaigns, Warnock noted that he was born a year after King’s assassination, when both Georgia senators were staunch segregationists, including one Warnock described himself as loving “the Negro” while he was “in his seat in the back.” the door.”
But Warnock said, “Because of what Dr. King did and because of what you did … now I’m sitting in his shoes.”
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