ATLANTA – As the nation remembered and reflected Monday on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., leaders and everyday Americans talked about how far the country has come in the past 50 years and how much more is to be done.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church in King’s hometown of Atlanta, civil rights leaders and members of King’s own family spoke about poverty, violence, health care and voting rights, all themes from the civil rights struggle that still resonate to this day.
“There is much work that we must do,” King’s daughter Bernice King said. “Are we afraid, or are we truly committed to the work that must be done?”
The event in Atlanta featured music, songs and choirs and was one of many celebrations, marches, parades and community service projects held Monday across the nation to honor the slain civil rights leader.
It was about 50 years ago that King had just appeared on the cover of Time magazine as its Man of the Year, and the nation was on the cusp of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King would win the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said not many states could boast a native son that merited a national holiday. “But we Georgians can,” he told the audience.
Deal said this year he would work with state legislators to find a way to honor King at the Georgia Capitol, which drew a standing ovation. He did not give any specifics, but civil rights leaders have suggested a statue. The only current tribute to King at the state Capitol is a portrait inside the Statehouse.
“I think that more than just saying kind thoughts about him we ought to take action ourselves,” said Deal, a Republican. “That’s how we embed truth into our words. I think it’s time for Georgia’s leaders to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps and take action, too.”
In the fall, a statue of 19th century white supremacist politician and newspaperman Tom Watson was removed from the Capitol.
Deal also touched on criminal justice reforms his administration has tried to make, including drug and mental health courts, saying too many people are not being rehabilitated in prisons.
“Let’s build a monument, but the monument should inspire us to build a better world,” said the Atlanta event’s keynote speaker, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. He also said the growing disparities in income, opportunity and health care are indications of a continuing struggle for equality decades after King’s death.
The event closed with the choir singing “We Shall Overcome,” with visitors singing verses in Spanish, Hebrew and Italian as audience members joined hands and swayed in unison.
President Barack Obama honored King’s legacy of service by helping a soup kitchen prepare its daily meals. Obama took his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha to DC Central Kitchen, which is a few minutes away from the White House.
New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio marked the day by talking about economic inequality, saying it was “closing doors for hard-working people in this city and all over this country.”
“We have a city sadly divided between those with opportunity, with the means to fully partake of that opportunity, and those whose dreams of a better life are being deferred again and again,” he told an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
At the King Memorial in Washington, Arthur Goff, of Frederick, Md., visited with family members. He said the holiday was often a time to catch up on chores and other things, but his 6-year-old son is getting old enough to learn more about King, and he said it was a good time to make their first visit.
Goff’s mother, 68-year-old Loretta Goff, said she was in nursing school in New York when King died in 1968 and remembers it being a traumatic time. Now, she said, everyone is responsible for continuing King’s legacy.
“There is still so much more to do,” she said.
At a rally in Columbia, S.C., North Carolina NAACP President William Barber went over a list of ways that Republican leaders in Congress and Southern governor’s offices have treated Americans badly, from leaving the Confederate flag to fly on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse to refusing federal money to expand Medicaid and allowing poor schools to fall further behind.
He left the few thousand people cheering and rocking like they were at a gospel revival, chanting “mighty low” and “higher ground” back to him.
Singer and activist Harry Belafonte headlined the 28th annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.
“I’m not too sure where America is at this moment,” he said. “We seem to have lost our moral compass . if we ever had one. … We don’t have the KKK riding around lynching people. We now have something even more horrific: We have the prison system. We use the system to continually crucify the poor.”
At the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., the centered showed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the hour. In August, tens of thousands of Americans visited the National Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.