The annual Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony at the Georgia statehouse began Friday with a symbolic moment between Gov. Brian Kemp and the slain civil rights leader’s daughter. It ended after a string of speakers lobbed not-so-subtle criticism his way.
None directly mentioned the Republican governor, who was sitting in a first-row seat beside the podium for much of the two-hour event and applauded each speech.
But the target was clear after a polarizing election between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams that deepened the political divide in Georgia.
Bernice King, the chief executive of The King Center, criticized conservative policies she said prolonged economic injustice. State Rep. Karen Bennett blasted the “outrageous and egregious voter suppression right here in Georgia,” evoking Democratic criticism of Kemp during the campaign.
And Brian Tolleson, chief executive of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, pointedly thanked former Gov. Nathan Deal for “standing on the right side of history” with his 2016 veto of “religious liberty” legislation that critics see as discriminatory. Kemp supports a version of the bill.
Some of the most sweeping language, though, came from former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. The Democrat used her speech to push for a host of policies that Kemp opposes, including the expansion of Medicaid and a $15 minimum wage.
“Things are better, but not great, for many Georgians. Hundreds of thousands of Georgians live in poverty because of low wages and wage stagnation,” she said. “If we cannot support ourselves and our families earning Georgia’s minimum wage, why do we believe others can?”
As some in the audience applauded, Franklin nodded to a trifecta of policies Kemp made central to his campaign: His ad promising to “round up criminal illegals myself,” his pledge to sign a “religious liberty” measure and his vow to pass the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions.
“We still debate whether immigrants are welcome in Georgia or should be rounded up by vigilantes. And whether religious freedom means you can legally discriminate against someone. Or whether men should have control of their bodies but women shouldn’t,” she said.
“The human rights challenges of the day are as important as those of years gone by,” she said. “Are we aligned with King, or are we sweeping the hard social, ethical, legal and economic issues of the day under the rug?”
King, Franklin said as she scanned a room full of politicians, was not afraid to “make leaders and everyday people uncomfortable – and we shouldn’t either.”
Then she outlined a half-dozen issues she urged Georgia leaders to pursue, including more funding for early childhood education, the reversal of “voter suppression policies” and opposition to any proposal that hints at discrimination.
“There is no place for hypocrites in an authentic King celebration. Celebration is fine. Action is better,” said Franklin. “This is a time for true believers in his message – fairness, justice, fair play, transparency, economic opportunity, peace.”
“If we tout our successes,” she said in her closing, “let’s honor King by telling the truth and pushing Georgia, and ourselves, to be the beloved community.”