ATLANTA – More than 2,000 people crowded into Ebenezer Baptist Church on Monday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to peace and equality, and to note the importance of his legacy in this election year.
“He understood that life is not about self. Life is about service – and service to others,” said Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Former President Bill Clinton, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin were among those in attendance.
King’s birthday is Jan. 15, but the federal holiday bearing his name is observed on the third Monday in January. It has been a national holiday since 1986, but his birthday has been observed at Ebenezer Baptist – where King preached from 1960 until 1968 – every year since his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., at age 39 on April 4, 1968.
“Martin aimed high, acted with faith, dreamed miracles that inspired a nation. Can we act on King’s legacy without dreaming? I think not,” Franklin said. “King’s legacy gives light to our hopes, permission to our aspirations and relevance to our dreams.”
“He freed us all to fight the civil rights battle, to fight the poverty battle, to fight all these battles and do it together,” Clinton said. “He made a place at the table for all of us.”
Clinton also noted the diverse presidential race that includes a Mormon, a black man and a Baptist preacher, as well as his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Isn’t this interesting? I mean, how cool is it? You know, we’ve got all these different people seeking the presidency,” he said. “And guess what? It’s all possible because of Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community.”
Franklin recently endorsed Democratic hopeful Barack Obama over Clinton.
“Georgia is on the mind of the next president of the United States,” said the mayor.
“We are at the cusp of turning the impossible into reality,” Franklin said. “Yes, this is reality, not a fantasy, or a fairy tale.”
Bill Clinton has been criticized in the black community for describing aspects of Obama’s candidacy as “a fairy tale.”
While the largely black crowd erupted in applause at Franklin’s comments, Clinton sat with his hands clasped in front of him.
The war in Iraq also drew a mention.
“We would be remiss if we did not commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., a champion of peace in a time of war,” said Isaac Newton Farris Jr., a nephew of King and president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Farris urged diplomacy, economic incentives and other nonviolent efforts “as an alternative to military intervention to end the war in Iraq,” drawing applause from the crowd of more than 2,000.
King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, worked for more than a decade to establish her husband’s birthday as a federal holiday. She died in 2006 at age 78.