Drawing from ongoing protests over police-involved shootings, global acts of terror and the film “Selma,” faith and academic leaders Monday prescribed the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help heal a still fractured world.
Speaking at the 47th annual King commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday, King’s daughter, Bernice King, opened the service by remembering Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice — each African-American males who died during encounters with police in 2014.
Their deaths have spurred nationwide protests to call attention to policing tactics in minority communities.
“In 2015, the beauty of the sacrifice and courage of those in the ’50s and ’60s is that they opened up a way for us to act, to have our voices heard, to speak up against injustice,” Bernice King said. “And so as we celebrate today, we praise God for a new generation of activists who have dared to remind America that black lives matter.”
Across Metro Atlanta and the country, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated with marches and acts of service. And in several U.S. cities, thousands spurred by a social media campaign dubbed “ReclaimMLK” held protests against policy brutality.
Locally, groups held demonstrations during the MLK march, at times blocking the event.
Some see those protests as a descendent of the King-led protests that pushed the nation toward laws that guaranteed desegregation and voting rights.
Beyond reforms aimed at diffusing tension between minority communities and law enforcement, America must urgently push forward on less publicized issues, such as voter ID laws to high prison rates for African-American men, said Alabama State University President Gwendolyn Boyd.
“When we look at the yellow crime scene tape that is wrapped around America right now, we know we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.
“This our wake-up call church,” Boyd said, invoking a growing social media hashtag when she declared: “It’s time for us to say #black lives matter.”
The holiday comes just days after “Selma,” the film depicting King’s 1965 voting rights marches, received an Academy Award nomination for best picture.
Actor David Oyelowo, who spoke to the packed crowd at Ebenezer, was moved to tears as he spoke of the dangers King faced in his work.
“I cannot imagine walking through life every day knowing there were people on earth who wanted to take my … children’s lives and my wife’s life. And then to leave and go and do it anyway,” Oyelowo told the crowd gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“The question I asked myself constantly was: ‘How did he do it?’”
Oyelowo said though Hollywood commonly casts minorities in subservient roles, instead of leaders, “I stand before you today as a man who has played a king.”
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with King in Selma, received a standing ovation led by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Lewis later spoke of his first meeting King when he was 17 years old, after King invited him to join the civil rights movement.
“You gave us something to live for and a cause we were willing to die for,” Lewis said. “You taught us that standing up for what you believe would connect us to the eternal power of the truth and universal love.”
Other dignitaries, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, attended the event. Gov. Nathan Deal was absent.
The Rev. Joanna Adams, interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church, spoke of growing up in a segregated South as a white woman. And she called on churches, specifically in the white faith community, to take stands on social justice issues.
“Dr. King reminded us there are all kinds of normalcy,” she said. “And if you sort of fade into that silent collusion and you don’t stand up and you don’t speak up, you have missed the mark as a human being.”
In a particularly poignant demonstration of King’s work, Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana said the civil rights hero’s philosophy helped her country rebuild following a devastating civil war and genocide in the 1990s.
“King’s philosophy became a road map to reconciliation and progress,” she said.
The event marks the 29th anniversary of King’s birthday as a national holiday, and is the culmination of a 10-day celebration of his legacy. King would have been 86 this month.
Last weekend, The King Center honored former President Bill Clinton during its Salute to Greatness Awards dinner for his work with the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation.