State News

January 22, 2013

Nation honors King on day of Obama inauguration

ATLANTA — Commemorative events for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. slid seamlessly into celebrations of the swearing-in Monday of the nation’s first black president, with many Americans moved by the reminder of how far the country has come since the 1960s.

“This is the dream that Dr. King talked about in his speech. We see history in the making,” said Joyce Oliver, who observed King Day by visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., built on the site of the old Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968.

In Atlanta, at the 45th annual service for the civil rights leader at the church where he was pastor, those gathered in the sanctuary were invited to stay to watch President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on a big-screen TV.

As the nearly three-hour service closed at Ebenezer Baptist Church, organizers suggested forgoing the traditional singing of “We Shall Overcome” because the inauguration would begin. But the crowd shouted protests, so the choir and congregation sang the civil rights anthem before settling in to watch the events in Washington.

In the nation’s capital, dozens took pictures of the King statue before walking to the National Mall for the inauguration.

Nicole Hailey, 34, drove all night with her family from Monroe, N.C. She attended Obama’s first inauguration four years ago and was carrying a commemorative Metro ticket from that day with Obama’s face on it.

She and her family visited the King memorial before the swearing-in.

“It’s Martin Luther King’s special day,” she said. “We’re just celebrating freedom.”

At the ceremonial inauguration, Obama took the oath on a Bible once owned by King. He called it “a great privilege.” The King Bible was one of two used; the other had belonged to Abraham Lincoln.

In Columbia, S.C., civil rights leaders paused during their annual King Day rally to watch the inauguration on a big screen. Most of the crowd of several hundred stayed to watch Obama’s address.

“You feel like anything is possible,” Jelin Cunningham, a 15-year-old black girl, said of Obama’s presidency. “I’ve learned words alone can’t hurt or stop you, because there have been so many hateful things said about him over the past four years.”

At the Atlanta service, King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, said the country had been through a difficult year, with divisive elections, military conflicts and natural disasters.

“We pray that this day will be the beginning of a new day in America,” she said. “It will be a day when people draw inspiration from the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It will be a day when people realize and recognize that if it were not for Dr. King and those who fought the fight fought in that movement, we would not be celebrating this presidency.”

She stressed her father’s commitment to nonviolence, saying that after the 1956 bombing of the family’s home in Montgomery, Ala., her father stood on the porch and urged an angry, armed crowd to fight with Christian love — not guns.

“This apostle of nonviolence perhaps introduced one of the bravest experiences of gun control that we’ve ever heard of in the history of our nation,” she said.

The service also kicked off a year of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. Students led by King’s great-niece Farris Christine Watkins delivered sections of the speech in turn.

By the end, the crowd was on its feet, shouting, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

The keynote speaker was the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a socially conservative evangelical association. It marked the first time a Latino had been invited to deliver the King Day address at Ebenezer Baptist.

He urged the audience to complete King’s dream.

“Silence is not an option when 30 million of our brothers and sisters live in poverty,” he said. “Silence is not an option when 11 million undocumented individuals continue to live in the shadows.”

Around the country, parades, service projects and memorials marked the holiday.

Visitors from as far as Europe thronged the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. In Detroit, students beautified schools. Others painted murals honoring King in Arkansas, donated items to a food bank in Texas, and conducted a community health fair in Pennsylvania.

More than 500 people rallied outside the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, where state employee Jessie Harris declared Obama’s presidency was a sign of progress in “living the dream” that King spoke about.

“We have come far, but the struggle is not over,” Harris said.

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