On Monday, America honored Martin Luther King, Jr., with a federal holiday. The country has done so for nearly 40 years. Yet according to his youngest daughter, the United States still hasn’t fully embraced and acted on the lessons from the slain civil rights leader.
Bernice King leads The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia. She says leaders—especially politicians—too often cheapen her father’s legacy. They present him as a “comfortable and convenient King” and offer easy clichés.
“We love to quote King in and around the holiday,” Bernice King says. “But then we refuse to live King 365 days of the year.” She made her remarks Monday at a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father once preached.
Martin Luther King, Jr., often referred to by his initials, “MLK,” was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. He was promoting better pay and working conditions for the city’s sanitation workers. He would have been 94 on Sunday.
Bernice King says she’s “exhausted, exasperated, and, frankly, disappointed” to hear her father’s words about justice quoted alongside what she considers “so little progress” on society’s gravest problems.
President Joe Biden addressed an MLK breakfast hosted in Washington, D.C.
“This is a time for choosing,” President Biden says. He also delivered an address—not a sermon—Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
President Biden honored Dr. King by saying his “life and legacy—in my view—shows the way forward.” That legacy included nonviolent protests against injustice and a recognition that change would require great personal sacrifice.
Elsewhere in Washington, Martin Luther King III attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the national memorial to his father.
Selma, Alabama, is an important site in the civil rights movement. Residents there commemorated King while recovering from a deadly storm system that moved across the South last week.
MLK was not present at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for the first march when Alabama state troopers attacked and beat marchers in 1965. But he joined a later procession that successfully crossed the bridge toward the Montgomery capitol. His actions helped push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Pettus Bridge was unscathed by Thursday’s storm.
Also on Monday, Maine’s first black House speaker, Rachel Talbot Ross, urged residents to honor King’s memory by joining in acts of service. “His unshakable faith, powerful nonviolent activism, and his vision for peace and justice in our world altered the course of history,” Ross says.
Raphael Warnock has led the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist for 17 years. He also recently won re-election to a full term as Georgia’s first black U.S. senator, after a tight runoff. His opponent in the election, Herschel Walker, was also a black candidate—one example of evidence that some of Dr. King's dreams have progressed to modern reality. But, like Bernice King, the senator warns against a petty understanding of King.
“Don’t just call him a civil rights leader. He was a faith leader,” Warnock says. “Faith was the foundation upon which he did everything he did. You don’t face down dogs and water hoses because you read Nietzsche or Niebuhr. You gotta tap into . . . that God [King] said he met anew in Montgomery when someone threatened to bomb his house and kill his wife and his new child.”
While echoing Bernice King’s call for bolder public policy, Warnock noted some progress in his lifetime. He was born just a year after King’s killing. At that time, both Georgia senators supported segregation (separation of races). Warnock describes one of them as loving “the Negro” as long as he was “in his place at the back door.”
But, Warnock declares to the Atlanta crowd, “Because of what Dr. King and because of what you [voters] did . . . I now sit in his seat.”
God does not intend for us to treat anyone differently because of skin color—especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. (Galations 3:26-28) MLK helped the United States make much progress in civil rights. What a blessing!
(A large group watches a wreath-laying ceremony at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, D.C., on January 16, 2023. AP/Andrew Harnik)