Martin Luther King’s daughter calls for bold action over words

Biden becomes first the sitting president to give a Sunday speech at MLK's Ebenezer Baptist Church. (CNN, Universal News Reel, WUSA, Pool)
Published: Jan. 16, 2023 at 4:04 PM EST
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ATLANTA - America has honored Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday for nearly four decades yet still hasn’t fully embraced and acted on the lessons from the slain civil rights leader, his youngest daughter said Monday.

The Rev. Bernice King, who leads The King Center in Atlanta, said leaders — especially politicians — too often cheapen her father’s legacy into a “comfortable and convenient King” offering easy platitudes.

“We love to quote King in and around the holiday. ... But then we refuse to live King 365 days of the year,” she declared at the commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father once preached.

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The service, sponsored by the center and held at Ebenezer annually, headlined observances of the 38th federal King holiday. King, gunned down in Memphis in 1968 as he advocated for better pay and working conditions for the city’s sanitation workers, would have celebrated his 94th birthday Sunday.

Her voice rising and falling in cadences similar to her father’s, Bernice King bemoaned institutional and individual racism, economic and health care inequities, police violence, a militarized international order, hardline immigration structures and the climate crisis. She said she’s “exhausted, exasperated and, frankly, disappointed” to hear her father’s words about justice quoted so extensively alongside “so little progress” addressing society’s gravest problems.

“He was God’s prophet sent to this nation and even the world to guide us and forewarn us. ... A prophetic word calls for an inconvenience because it challenges us to change our hearts, our minds and our behavior,” Bernice King said. “Dr. King, the inconvenient King, puts some demands on us to change our ways.”

At Ebenezer, Sen. Raphael Warnock, who has led the congregation for 17 years, hailed his predecessor’s role in securing ballot access for Black Americans. But, like Bernice King, the senator warned against a reductive understanding of King.

“Don’t just call him a civil rights leader. He was a faith leader,” Warnock said. “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 thing, that God he said he met anew in Montgomery when someone threatened to bomb his house and kill his wife and his new child.”

King, Warnock said, “left the comfort of a filter that made the whole world his parish,” turning faith into “the creative weapon of love and nonviolence.”

While echoing Bernice King’s call for bolder public policy, Warnock noted some progress in his lifetime. As he’s done through two Senate campaigns, Warnock noted he was born a year after King’s assassination, when both of Georgia senators were staunch segregationists, including one Warnock described as loving “the Negro” as long as he was “in his place at the back door.”

But, Warnock said, “Because of what Dr. King and because of what you did ... I now sit in his seat.”

A visit from Biden

The service at Ebenezer came a day after President Joe Biden delivered the Sunday sermon there.

Biden cited the telling question that King himself once asked of the nation.

“He said, ‘Where do we go from here?’” Biden said from the pulpit. “Well, my message to this nation on this day is we go forward, we go together, when we choose democracy over autocracy, a beloved community over chaos, when we choose believers and the dreams, to be doers, to be unafraid, always keeping the faith.”

In a divided country only two years removed from a violent insurrection, Biden told congregants, elected officials and dignitaries that “the battle for the soul of this nation is perennial. It’s a constant struggle ... between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice.”

He spoke out against those who “traffic in racism, extremism, insurrection” and said the struggle to safeguard democracy was playing out in courthouses and ballot boxes, protests and other ways. “At our best, the American promise wins out. … But I don’t need to tell you that we’re not always at our best. We’re fallible. We fail and fall.’’

In introducing Biden, the church’s senior pastor, Warnock noted that the president was “a devout Catholic” for whom “this Baptist service might be a little bit rambunctious and animated. But I saw him over there clapping his hands.”

In his remarks, the president said that for all the progress the United States has made, the country had now reached a critical point in its history. He said democracies can backslide, noting the collapse of the institutional structures of democracy in places such as Brazil.

“Progress is never easy, but it’s always possible and things do get better in our march to a more perfect union,” he said. “But at this inflection point, we know a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice civil rights, voting rights, protecting our democracy. And I’m remembering our job is to redeem the soul of America.”

This moment, he said, “is the time of choosing. … Are we a people who will choose democracy over autocracy? Couldn’t ask that question 15 years ago because everybody thought democracy was settled. ... But it’s not.” Americans, he said, " have to choose a community over chaos. ... These are the vital questions of our time and the reason why I’m here as your president. I believe Dr. King’s life and legacy show us the way and we should pay attention.”

King celebrations elsewhere

  • In Boston on Monday, Mayor Michelle Wu talked about a fight for the truth in an era of hyper-partisanship and misinformation. “We’re battling not just two sides or left or right and a gradient in between that have to somehow come to compromise, but a growing movement of hate, abuse, extremism and white supremacy fueled by misinformation, fueled by conspiracy theories that are taking root at every level,” she said.
  • Volunteers in Philadelphia held a “day of service” focused on gun violence prevention. The city has seen a surge in homicides that saw 516 people killed last year and 562 the year before, the highest total in at least six decades. Some participants in the effort’s signature project, led by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, worked to assemble gun safety kits for public distribution. The kits include “gun cable locks and additional safety devices for childproofing,” according to organizers.
  • Maine’s first Black House speaker urged residents Monday 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,” Rachel Talbot Ross said in a statement. Talbot Ross is also the daughter of Maine’s first black lawmaker, and a former president of the Portland NAACP.