Speakers at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration in Atlanta called Monday for a renewed dedication to nonviolence following a turbulent year in which a deadly pandemic, protests over systemic racism and a divisive election capped by an attack on the U.S. Capitol strained Americans’ capacity for civility.
“This King holiday has not only come at a time of great peril and physical violence, it has also come during a time of violence in our speech — what we say and how we say it,” said the Rev. Bernice King, the slain civil rights leader’s daughter. “It is frankly out of control and we are causing too much harm to one another.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced the annual King Day service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church online during the 35th celebration of his birthday as a national holiday. His family was among a sparse group wearing masks and sitting far apart amid mostly empty pews as others delivered remarks remotely.
Bernice King said the toll of the pandemic, lingering outrage over killings of unarmed Black people and the deadly siege in Washington by supporters of President Donald Trump all underscore an urgent need to pursue what her father called “the beloved community” — a world in which conflict is solved nonviolently and compassion dictates policy.
She quoted her father’s words from more than 50 years ago: “There is such a thing as being too late.”
“We still have a choice today — nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation,” Bernice King said, again reciting the words of her father. “This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”
The ceremony included prerecorded remarks by President-elect Joe Biden, who recalled sensing the civil rights leader’s “restless spirit” during a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum housed at the Tennessee motel where he was fatally shot outside his room.
“We must not rest. It’s our responsibility to come together, all Americans, to bring peace to that restless spirit,” Biden said. “… That’s our charge in the days ahead. That’s the charge in the years ahead.”
U.S. Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s pastor, appealed for unity following his victory in a runoff election Jan. 5.
“Let us stand together, let us work together,” Warnock said, calling the COVID-19 pandemic a reminder that all people are “tied together, as Dr. King said, in a single garment of destiny.”
“Because we’re dealing with a deadly airborne disease, my neighbour coughs and I’m imperilled by the cough of my neighbour,” Warnock said. “That doesn’t make my neighbour my enemy. That means that our destiny is tied together.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Had he lived, he would have turned 92 on his birthday last Friday.