MLK service: Calls for unity. peace amid political discord

The tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King is seen on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

The tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King is seen on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

The strained politics of 2020 were on full display Monday as the city’s African American, religious and political leaders gathered to commemorate what would have been the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 91st birthday at his spiritual home of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

That poitical tension was clear in speeches from members of the King family and church leaders, who sought to square the civil rights hero’s vision for a Beloved Community — a world in which love and trust triumph over fear and hatred — with the acrimonious political moment.

And it was just as apparent in what the assembled political leaders did — and did not — say as they sought to pay homage to King without running aground of their respective parties.

In a fiery speech kicking off the morning service, Rev. Bernice King, CEO of Atlanta's King Center and the youngest of Coretta and Martin Luther King's four children, urged the leaders assembled to do more than just honor her father's legacy once a year. She said they had a responsibility to fight "with fierce determination" on issues such as income inequality, police brutality and voting rights every day.

“We must act now before it’s too late,” King said, “because we are teetering on the edge of losing our collective soul and our opportunity to build a beloved community.”

Rev. Raphael Warnock was even more blunt. Ebenezer Baptist’s senior pastor slammed “politicians of every stripe falling all over themselves to pay tribute, to offer platitudes, to give lipservice” to King and then tarnish his legacy through their policies.

"They offer platitudes to his name while supporting voter suppression and voter purging and unnecessary programs like 'exact match,' racial gerrymandering," said Warnock to thunderous applause.

Sitting stoicly a feet away was Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who oversees the state's elections and has insisted the state's voter lists must be maintained to ensure they're accurate.

In a brief speech a few minutes before Warnock's, Raffensperger touted the state's new voting machines and record-high registration levels.

“I promise to you that I will devote myself to creating a system that will be worthy of the dear price that patriots like Martin Luther King Jr. paid so Americans can vote freely and fairly in our elections,” Raffensperger told the packed crowd, which responded with polite but more muted applause.

State Republicans were also represented by U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was sworn in earlier this month.

“In public service, in community and in Washington, like those gathered here, my aim is to love God, to serve others and to make a difference, inspired by Dr. King,” said Loeffler, who continued her predecessor Johnny Isakson’s tradition of attending the annual Martin Luther King Day service.

Loeffler's presence Monday, sharing the stage with Warnock, was notable given that the pastor has quietly laid the groundwork to run against her in November. Warnock is said to have the support of former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, the most powerful force in Georgia Democratic politics, and is expected to announce his candidacy within days.

Warnock did not drop hints about a run in his speech on Monday other than being critical of GOP policies, like Gov. Kemp’s refusal to expand Medicaid because of its cost.

President Donald Trump’s name was barely mentioned during Monday’s service, but he was never far from the forefront.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, the first Georgia congressman to back impeachment, mentioned his work on the issue as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, while keynote speaker Rev. Howard-John Wesley, a senior pastor from the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., resurfaced an old King adage that silence in the face of injustice is betrayal in reference to the administration's immigration and gun policies.

“Where are the voices that ought to cry out [about the] ungodliness?” he said.

Wesley warned about political forces whitewashing and co-opting King’s legacy.

“There are politicians in this land who are writing proclamations and at services of commemoration mentioning the name of Dr. King,” he said. “The very name of Martin Luther King Jr. ought to upset their system… and make them uncomfortable because he stood for everything they don’t stand for.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the AJC incorrectly quoted Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The AJC regrets this error.


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister from Atlanta, was one of the most important leaders of the 20th century.

Before he was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, at age 39, King led many nonviolent protests, which helped change how black people are treated in the United States.

To honor King and his achievements, Americans pay tribute to him on Martin Luther King Day, observed on the third Monday in January.

King was born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929.