ATLANTA – The first Martin Luther King Jr. Day since the death of King’s widow and the chief keeper of his civil rights dream was marked Monday with speeches, visits to the couple’s tomb and the opening of a collection of his papers, including a draft of his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Coretta Scott King’s legacy loomed large over the 21st observance of the King holiday at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached.
“It is in her memory and her honor that we must carry this program on,” said her sister in law, Christine King Farris. “This is as she would have it.”
Mayor Shirley Franklin urged the congregation not to pay tribute to King’s message of peace and justice on his birthday and then contradict it the next.
“Millions can’t find jobs, have no health insurance and struggle to make ends meet, working minimum-wage jobs. What’s going on?” Franklin said, repeating a refrain from soul singer Marvin Gaye.
As King condemned the war in Vietnam 40 years ago, Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, denounced the war in Iraq.
“The real danger is not that America may lose the war,” Warnock said. “The real danger is that America may well lose its soul.”
Visitors also paid homage to the slain civil rights leader and his wife at their tomb, not far from the church.
“They’re together at last,” said Daphne Johnson, who was baptized by King at Ebenezer.
Coretta Scott King died last year on Jan. 31 at age 78. An activist in her own right, she also fought to shape and preserve her husband’s legacy after his death, and founded what would become the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Crowds lined up early at the Atlanta History Center to see the first exhibition of King’s collected papers since they were returned to his hometown. The papers brought back difficult memories for some.
“I remember a lot that I don’t care to say,” said Bertis Post, 70, of Atlanta, who marched with King in Alabama and Atlanta. “I always wanted to see the papers in person – just to be here and be around what you believe.”
The exhibit includes King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, an early draft of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize and more than 600 other personal documents.
In California, Stanford University released some of King’s earliest sermons and other writings Monday, a decade after the documents were discovered in a moldy cardboard box in an Atlanta basement.
The texts include sermons written when King was a 19-year-old seminary student in 1948 until 1963.
In a 1949 sermon, King asked God to “help us work with renewed vigor for a warless world, a better distribution of wealth and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.”
King also sought a peaceful coexistence between science and religion and rejected a literal reading of the Bible, an approach he said had been used to justify slavery and other racial injustices.
Elsewhere, thousands of volunteers observed the holiday by taking part in service projects. Organizers expected about 50,000 people to participate in about 600 projects, said Todd Bernstein of the group MLK Day of Service.
President Bush, in an unannounced stop at a high school near the White House, said people should honor King on the holiday by finding ways to give back to their communities. Classes were not in session but volunteers were sprucing up the school.
“I encourage people all around the country to seize any opportunity they can to help somebody in need,” Bush said. “And by helping somebody in need you’re honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King.”
Several hundred people gathered in West Columbia, S.C., for a breakfast prayer service, where the Rev. Brenda Kneece said King set the standard for sacrifice and vision.
King’s “vision became even more powerful because he understood the risks he was taking,” said Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council. “It’s very important for our children to know that his sacrifice didn’t win the war. We still have to keep at it.”
At Michigan State University, officials presented a one-day civil rights exhibit that displayed slave shackles, a document from King’s voting rights march in Alabama and a fingerprint card for Rosa Parks made after her 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.
Marchers commemorating King Day in Troy, Ohio, were heckled by a group of seven neo-Nazi protesters shouting white power slogans and carrying signs, police said. There were no arrests.
And in North Carolina, 400 workers walked off the job or refused to show up at a huge Smithfield Foods Inc. hog slaughtering plant in Tar Heel after managers refused to grant the King holiday as a paid day off.
The company said a union request last week for the day off came too late for a change of work plans.
This year’s holiday comes on the day King would have turned 78. King was assassinated April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis, Tenn. His confessed killer, James Earl Ray, was arrested two months later in London.