ATLANTA — A scholar and activist invoked the fiery side of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric Monday at the civil rights icon’s church, urging the audience not to “sanitize” King’s legacy or let the president off the hook on issues like poverty.
Across the United States, Americans marked what would have been King’s 81st birthday with rallies and parades. And days ahead of the anniversary of his historic inauguration, President Barack Obama honored King by serving meals to the needy.
But in the city where the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner was born, it was Princeton University professor Cornel West who reminded listeners that King’s message of nonviolence came with a fiery urgency. West delivered a passionate keynote address to hundreds at Ebenezer Baptist Church on the 25th federal observance of King’s birthday.
West told the crowd to remember King’s call to help others and not enshrine his legacy in “some distant museum.” Instead, West offered, King should be remembered as a vital person whose powerful message was once even considered dangerous by the FBI.
“I don’t want to sanitize Martin Luther King Jr.,” said West, who teaches in Princeton’s Center for African American Studies and is the author of “Race Matters” and 19 other books. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t even mention his name without shivering and shuddering.”
West also told the mostly black audience to hold Obama’s administration accountable even as they celebrate his historic presidency. The anniversary of Obama’s inauguration as the country’s first black president — seen by many blacks as part of the fulfillment of King’s dream — is Jan. 20.
“Even with your foot on the brake, there are too many precious brothers and sisters under the bus,” West said of Obama. “Where is the talk about poverty? We’ve got to protect him and respect him, but we’ve also got to correct him if the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is going to stay alive.”
King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, presided over the ceremony with her aunt, Christine King Farris, the civil rights leader’s only living sibling. His other children, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, did not attend the service at the church where King preached, which was packed to its 2,200-person capacity.
In Washington, Obama honored King’s legacy of helping others serving lunch at a social services organization. Later Monday, Obama discussed the civil rights movement with a group of black elders and their grandchildren.
“How are you sir? God bless you,” the president said, greeting one man among the dozens of people who filed into the dining room at SOME, or So Others Might Eat.
The organization, a short ride from the White House, provides the poor and homeless with food and other services. Obama handed them pre-assembled lunch plates of chicken, potato salad, mixed vegetables and bread.
He brought the whole family to assist: first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, mother-in-law Marian Robinson and some aides.
Obama spoke Monday evening during a musical celebration of King’s legacy at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The president said it was fitting to celebrate King’s legacy with song, citing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” as an example. Obama urged the nation to recommit itself to fulfilling King’s dream of a post-racial society.
“So tonight let us remember the courage of the man who had that dream. Let us remember the perseverance of all those who have worked to fulfill that dream,” Obama said, with his family looking on from the audience. “Let us recommit ourselves to doing our part in our own lives and as a nation to make that dream real in the 21st century.”
The free concert featured singer India.Arie along with the Let Freedom Ring Choir, which is made up mostly of Georgetown University students, faculty and staff.
At the White House, Obama and Mrs. Obama sat around a conference table in the Roosevelt Room for a discussion with people who had been active in the civil rights movement, including Dorothy Height, the longtime chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, and Willie Glanton, the first black woman elected to Iowa’s state Legislature in the mid-1960s.
Obama told reporters the conversation served as a reminder “that there were some extraordinarily courageous young people … who were actively involved in bringing about one of the great moments in United States history.”
Marches and parades took place around the country, including one in Montgomery, Alabama, where King gained renown leading a bus boycott in protest of segregation in 1955.
Tens of thousands marched in San Antonio, Texas, with some singing “We shall overcome,” an anthem of 1960s civil rights workers, and others chanting “Yes, we can,” the slogan used by Obama’s campaign.