Faith and civic leaders, gathered at the annual celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, declared Medicaid expansion in Georgia and income inequality as the next step in furthering King’s legacy.
“We are against violence, but we have to broaden the scope,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the epicenter of King celebrations. “There are all kinds of violence in the world. Poverty is its own violence.”
Hundreds packed into Ebenezer Baptist to commemorate what would have been the civil rights icon’s 85th birthday. But the four-hour affair was especially poignant, Bernice King noted, as roughly 50 years ago her father led the March on Washington and, in 1964, became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ebenezer’s service was the touchstone of MLK ceremonies across the country, capping off events held in recent weeks to promote themes of non-violence. The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP recently sponsored a gun buy-back program, the King Center held panel discussions on social causes, Hosea Feed the Hungry hosted an annual dinner and groups across the metro area held marches and other commemmorations.
As part of a mission to make the holiday “a day on, not a day off,” volunteers were encouraged to fan out across the city and state. Hands on Atlanta reported 3,000 volunteers participated in a day of service on projects including beautification of civil rights historic sites and serving the poor.
At Ebenezer, dignitaries including U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed addressed the hundreds gathered at the church. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who worked with King, was showered with applause from the pews.
“Dr. King deserves all the praise and honor that is afforded him in ceremonies like this one which take place each year around the nation,” Deal said. “But I think more than just saying kind thoughts about him, we ought to take action ourselves. This is how we embed truth into our words.”
Deal pledged to give King a permanent presence at the state Capitol, but stopped short of giving specific details.
Reed praised sacrifices by King that paved the way for men like him and President Barack Obama to run for office.
“I think in moments like this, we’ve got to come back to our core and remember how it all happened,” he said.
Reed pledged to improve Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in downtown Atlanta, a commitment he made last year as part of plans for the new $1.2 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium.
“Shame on me and shame on all of us … that Martin Luther King Jr. Drive looks like every other Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the United States of America,” he said, noting that when the work is complete, “You’re going to know (King) is from Atlanta.”
Reed, like Warnock, also addressed poverty as detrimental to society. The crowd rose as Reed spoke of teaching children to “dream.”
“If our children are in poverty, our dreams are in poverty, and the future of the United States of America is at risk,” he said.
Warnock, the keynote speaker, spoke on a wide range of issues and called for federal leaders to extend unemployment insurance. The crowd roared in support as he called for Deal to expand Medicaid.
“There is no reason not to expand Medicaid,” he said. “…It is ours, not for the taking. We gave the money. Let the money come back.”
The governor, who by that time had left, has said expanding Medicaid would be too costly in the long-term for Georgia.
Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, presided over the event. She recognized the work of her mother, Coretta Scott King, in advancing King’s image from once-feared activist to icon.
“We will not forget Coretta Scott King,” she said to cheers. “She always belonged side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Barb and Ted Bergstrom traveled to Atlanta from Minnesota, in part to attend Monday’s service at King’s birthplace.
“It’s not that people don’t celebrate it (in Minnesota), but we don’t have the connection or feel in the same strength,” Ted Bergstrom said. “…You don’t grow and learn staying home.”
Paula Story, of Atlanta, brought her 6-year-old granddaughter Shiymeria to the service to continue conversations they’ve had about King’s work, she said.
“He’s cool because he went around the state and he had a lot of people gathering to change laws,” said Shiymeria Story, as her grandmother beamed.
Gail Cook, of Atlanta, said she worked in the Civil Rights Movement and attends the King service every year.
“Our purpose was to serve the poor. I still carry that with me,” she said. “We’re still doing the work of Dr. King.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.