Speaking at the Martin Luther King commemorative service on Monday, actor David Oyelowo was moved to tears as he spoke of portraying the civil rights legend in the film “Selma.”
“I have four children and I cannot imagine walking through life every day knowing there were people on earth who wanted to take my four 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 on Monday.
“The question I asked myself constantly was: ‘How did he do it?’”
Oyelowo joined a host of faith and political leaders to celebrate King’s birthday today. The event marks the 29th anniversary of King’s death as a national holiday, and is the culmination of a 10-day celebration of his legacy.
Dr. Bernice King, referenced slain teen Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year Tamir Rice, all whom died during encounters with police, as well as the recent massacres in Paris and Nigeria as she opened the service.
“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,” she said.
“We cannot act unless we understand what Dr. King taught us. He taught us that we still have a choice to make: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. I challenge you to work with us as we help this national choose nonviolence.”
King also acknowledged “Selma” producer Oprah Winfrey and director Ava DuVernay for bringing the work of the civil rights leader’s 1965 marches over voting rights to the silver screen.
Oyelowo’s father flew in from England for the event. The actor spoke of his family’s Nigerian roots, and tribal scars on his father’s stomach that members of his tribe typically bear. The mark, he said, translates to “king.”
Oyelowo also addressed Hollywood for commonly casting minorities in subservient roles, instead of leaders: “I stand before you today as a man who has played a king.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson began his remarks by acknowledging U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Civil Rights activist who worked under King, for influencing his life.
“There is not a finer man in Congress,” Isakson said, as the crowd gave Lewis a standing ovation.
Lewis later spoke of first meeting King when he was 17 years old, after King invited him to join the movement in Birmingham.
“You gave us something to live for and a cause we were willing to die for,” Lewis said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he considers the event a “touchstone” moment for the city, noting King’s work “changed the city, changed the state and changed the nation.”
Reed also made a passing reference to the recent controversy over the dismissal of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, saying he referred to his Bible in preparing his remarks.
“I do have a Bible for those talking about that,” he quipped.
Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana said King’s work has helped her country rebuild following a devastating civil war and genocide in the 1990s.
“Twenty years ago today our country was reduced to ashes by the most vicious violence inflicted by men to men. Genocide destroyed economic political and social fabric of our country,” she said.
King’s philosophy became a “road map to reconciliation and progress,” she said.
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.”
Alabama State University President Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd is the event’s keynote speaker. Gov. Nathan Deal did not attend.
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. Kaiser Permanente also received an award for its commitment to promoting diversity in the workforce.
King would have been 86 years old this month.
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