The youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. said the country needs to take the principles her father espoused and enact them year-round, moving from a “day on” during the holiday to a constant state of fighting for civil rights.
“We must act now before it's too late because we are teetering on the edge of losing our collective soul and opportunity to build the beloved community,” Bernice King said. “We cannot afford to operate as if we have the luxury of time. At some point, that window of opportunity will close. And our tendency to act only in times deemed as great crises will have failed us.”
King urged the packed pews of Ebenezer Baptist Church to participate in the electoral process this November and that voting was a part of systemic change.
“Whether you are Republican, Democrat, independent, or no party, we must fight with a fierce determination to discover a win-win pathway to build a beloved community, or it will be too late and we will all lose,” she said.
The vaulted sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church echoed with songs of praise – from a spellbinding saxophone addendum to “Lift Evr’y Voice And Sing” to a Korean American youth choir – and a call to action from King and other dignitaries.
“With the fierce urgency of now, we must elect leaders, who in their words and deeds value every person and govern with respect for the offices that they hold, and with a bent toward justice and equity,” she said. “With the fierce urgency of now, we must elevate MLK Day, beyond the ‘day on.’ MLK Day should be a day that reminds us that we cannot wait.”
Rev. Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s pastor, took a more direct approach, calling out issues like voter suppression and Medicaid expansion as examples of “politicians playing games.”
“It’s MLK weekend and everybody wants to be seen standing where Dr. King stood, that’s fine,” he said. “But if today you would stand in this holy place where Dr. King stood, make sure that come tomorrow we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”
Warnock has dropped hints that he would mount a run for U.S. Senate in a special election this November for the seat currently held by Republican Kelly Loeffler (R-GA). Loeffler was an invited guest, sitting a few seats down from Warnock as he spoke.
“I grew up on a family farm in a rural town, far away from downtown Atlanta,” she said. “But Dr. King's story, his leadership, his words and actions had a profound effect on my life, and on my values.”
Another speaker was Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who discussed the state’s new touchscreen ballot-marking device voting machines and his office’s partnership with the King Center.
“There is a renewed confidence in the election process that their vote will be counted accurately,” he said. “We are grateful for the King Center opening their doors to our office, so we could set up voting machines at the center so visitors can test and try out the new machines.”
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore echoed Bernice King’s call to action, saying that Americans must work to address issues like livable wages, criminal justice reform and affordable housing.
“Today I say the acronym for the word ‘now’ is ‘Not Off Work,’” she said. “As long as our cities are filled with people without homes, we are not off work. Until every child is guaranteed a quality education regardless of their zip code, we are not off work.”
The keynote speech was from Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, the senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
“Dr. King had a vision of reconstructing America by dismantling the three-pronged pillar of evil that our society was, and is still built upon,” he said. “He realized it was not just a race problem, but that race was tied into militarism, and militarism was tied into capitalism and capitalism was built upon poverty and militarism was based upon violence and racism was built upon ignorance of children. Dr. King saw all three and had the courage to call it all out."
More than 2,100 people attended the service, which was also streamed online and on Fox 5 in Atlanta.