Civil rights community defends John Lewis at King celebration

On a day that is supposed to be about unity, much of Monday's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church focused on the fight between Atlanta Congressman John Lewis and incoming president Donald Trump.

The event also included a passionate speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders imploring those in attendance to stand up for justice.

Speaker after speaker admonished Trump over his comments last weekend about Lewis, a hero in the civil rights community, and set the stage for what could be a brutal battle over the next four years between those who believe in King’s vision and the White House.

“Shame on you Mr. Trump on this weekend to disrespect an icon of the civil rights movement,” keynote speaker Rev. Michael Louis Pfleger said in his opening remarks of Lewis. “You, Mr. Trump, have made yourself the anchor of fake news.”

Trump criticized Lewis after the Congressman said he would not attend Trump's inauguration on Friday and called his presidency illegitimate because of intelligence that concluded Russia tampered in the election to favor Trump. Trump responded in a tweet that Lewis should focus on his own home district in Atlanta, which Trump characterized as "crime ridden" and "falling apart."

Bernice King, the daughter of the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968, said to rousing applause, “At the end of the day, the Donald Trumps come and go, but justice will still be here.”

While the King family gathered in Atlanta, Trump was meeting with King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, in Washington, in a move widely perceived as an attempt to diffuse mounting tensions between the incoming White House and the civil rights community.

Separately, in Gwinnett County, a Republican county commissioner grabbed headlines after calling Lewis a "racist pig" on Facebook before deleting the post. Democrats have called for his resignation.

Later Monday evening, Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump’s, took part in a “community talk” with Bernice King, CNN commentator Bakari Sellers and others on ways to bridge the racial divide.

Change from the bottom

Sander's turn at the podium brought a thunderous response as the senator, who took part in the 1963 March on Washington and was a student activist at the University of Chicago, reminded the standing-room only crowd that King was not revered at the time of his death. King was still doing the hard work, Sanders said, of standing up for people with little voice. King would be amazed that instead of finding jobs or getting an education, many of those same people today are behind bars, the former Democratic presidential candidate said.

To move forward, he said, the nation must look at itself and not to government.

“Real change comes not from the top down, but when millions of people stand up and fight for justice,” he said. “It’s necessary for us to bring his spirit and courage into 2017.”

Hundreds of people came out for the morning service, which featured speeches from across the political and civil rights spectrum, including Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Lithonia) and “The Fast and the Furious” actor and activist Tyrese Gibson.

Around the metro area, communities from Cobb County to held parades, prayer breakfasts and 5K walk/runs.

“We’re living with a lost generation where we’re dealing with a bunch of celebrities and entertainers, athletes, rappers, singers, and they have five million followers on Instagram [but] refuse to speak up on something that matters,” the actor said.

The line to get into the church snaked down the street, with hundreds patiently waiting at the front door well into the program. They hoped that room might become available as some people departed early.

Boris Stallworth, a West Midtown resident who attended the celebration, said he came out hoping to hear Sanders’ ideas on how to bridge the gap between both parties.

“I think there’s a lot of hurt and pain,” said Stallworth, who shares a birthday with King. “I’m hoping to hear how he can motivate other people, rally us together to be able to combat that negative energy and encourage everybody to get out and do something great.

“This is a day of love,” he said. “That’s what MLK was about. He stood as a positive role model and figure.”

Jazryah Fulton, 12, of Conyers, said he was excited about the event.

“He fought for our freedom,” Fulton said of King. “He’ll always be remembered even though he’s not here today.”

Ayanna Akovundu of Agnes Scott College said she came out because honoring King is about more than having a day off from work.

“It’s not a day that should pass by,” she said. “We should take the time to recognize his contributions and to see what we can do to give more.”

Gwinnett resident Charleen Lincoln attended the county’s parade Monday and said she felt obligated to show her support for someone who fought for equality. The daughter of a white mother and black father, she said she has faced discrimination throughout her life and knows the hard work it takes to stand up.

A dental assistant originally from Portland, Lincoln remembers being the only black staffer in an office of about 30 people where others were given the benefit of doubt that she wasn’t.

“I used to have to do things 20 times better and harder than everybody else,” she said, “because I was black.”