President Joe Biden took the pulpit Sunday at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once delivered many powerful and eloquent sermons in the final years of his life.
At the invitation of Ebenezer pastor and US Senator Raphael Warnock, Biden on Sunday became the first sitting president to preach from the pulpit of the church in downtown Atlanta on the slain civil rights leader’s 94th birthday. Biden’s speech was about the hard road it takes to bring about needed change, exemplifying King’s fight for black equality.
Despite King’s death at age 39, Biden said King’s legacy endured because he remained optimistic while understanding that progress was never easy. Before his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, the leader of the civil rights movement preached powerfully and spread his call for nonviolent social change in many cities.
Biden on Sunday reflected on some of the social and racial advances of recent years, including Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson, who became the first black woman to become a US Supreme Court justice.
The President also encouraged people to emulate King’s qualities as the fight for justice continues.
“It’s always possible that things will get better as we move toward a more perfect union,” Biden said. “But at this tipping point, we know there is still much work to be done in the areas of economic justice, civil rights, voting rights and protecting our democracy. And I remember that our job is to redeem the soul of America.”
State and federal offices will remain closed on Monday due to the holiday in honor of the king. Numerous events honoring the civil rights leader took place throughout the weekend and many more are planned for Monday.
On Friday, state officials and members of King’s family gathered at the State Capitol, not far from King’s boyhood home, for Georgia’s 39th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration of Service.
Keynote speaker, CEO and President of Georgia Power, Chris Womack, was introduced by former Columbus Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre, who returned to the Gold Dome while awaiting confirmation as US Ambassador to the Bahamas.
Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns credited Smyre with his role in making King’s birthday a state holiday in 1984 and securing support for a statue in his honor on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol in 2017, a strategy to neutralize King the opposition. Legislation to introduce a state holiday had stalled in the Georgia legislature until the previous year when the US Congress declared the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of the king.
Womack, a black man who became CEO and chairman of the state’s largest utility company in 2021, said King’s dream remained unfulfilled long after the 1776 Declaration of Independence decreed that “all men are created equal.”
As part of Womack’s call to keep King’s legacy alive, companies should continue to diversify their workforces and provide basic needs to those in need, Womack said.
“We must not accept this state of affairs as a reality,” he said. “We must not leave this state unattended.”
“We need to work collaboratively with people who are trying to help, whether it’s in food kitchens, whether it’s emergency shelter, or if there’s a need for additional housing,” Womack said. “We cannot accept things like homelessness as a reality. We need to set goals in our community that we will eliminate completely (homelessness).”
Several prizes were awarded at the state festival. The Rita Jackson Samuels Founders Award went to Wanda Okunoren-Meadows, CEO of Forest Park; Albany’s civil rights activist JT Johnson was honored with the Andrew J. Young Humanitarian Award; Alabama Rev. Fred Taylor received the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery Civil Rights Award; and Georgia Senator Emmanuel Jones, a Democrat from Columbus, received the John Lewis Lifetime Achievement Award.
King’s great-niece Farris Christine Watkins was also presented with the King’s Holiday Proclamation.
According to a national poll conducted by Harris a year before King’s assassination, 75% of the American public disapproved of him. Jim Crow advocates in the Deep South, as well as many moderate whites elsewhere in the nation, opposed full integration and equal treatment for blacks.
Democratic state senator Nikki Merritt said Friday that the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus remains committed to realizing many of King’s unfulfilled dreams, including improved access to health care, jobs and education.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp offered a prayer at Friday’s ceremony for those who suffered from the tornadoes that ripped through Georgia the day before. The storm claimed the lives of a five-year-old boy and a Department of Transportation worker who was working to clear a road.
Kemp said King’s message of racial equality and moral responsibility still resonates today as he noted King faced hatred, prejudice and threats against his family.
Kemp said he sees racial progress in Georgia as something that lives on in the legacy of the civil rights leader who overcame and overcame so many obstacles.
“Every year we celebrate this occasion, not only to remember Dr. King or his wisdom, not only to celebrate his contribution to our state and nation, but also to remind us of his mission, his deeds and his inspirational message,” said Kemp. “Remembering the man is remembering the man, and each of us must consider how, in our own unique way, we build on his timeless legacy.”