Speakers at the annual Martin Luther King Jr holiday celebration in Atlanta have called for a renewed dedication to non-violence following a turbulent year in which a deadly pandemic, protests over systemic racism and a divisive election capped by an attack on the US Capitol strained Americans’ capacity for civility.
“This King holiday has not only come at a time of great peril and physical violence, it has also come during a time of violence in our speech — what we say and how we say it,” said the Rev Bernice King, the murdered civil rights leader’s daughter.
“It is frankly out of control and we are causing too much harm to one another.”
The pandemic forced the annual King Day service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church online during the 35th celebration of his birthday as a national holiday.
His family was among a sparse group wearing masks and sitting far apart amid mostly empty pews as others delivered remarks remotely.
Ms King said the toll of the pandemic, lingering outrage over killings of unarmed black people and the deadly siege in Washington by supporters of Donald Trump all underscore an urgent need to pursue what her father called “the beloved community” — a world in which conflict is solved non-violently and compassion dictates policy.
She quoted her father’s words from more than 50 years ago: “There is such a thing as being too late.”
She added: “We still have a choice today — non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”
The ceremony included pre-recorded remarks by president-elect Joe Biden, who recalled sensing the civil rights leader’s “restless spirit” during a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Tennessee motel where he was shot dead outside his room.
“We must not rest. It’s our responsibility to come together, all Americans, to bring peace to that restless spirit,” Mr Biden said. “That’s our charge in the days ahead. That’s the charge in the years ahead.”
US senator-elect Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s pastor, appealed for unity following his election in a runoff election on January 5.
“Let us stand together, let us work together,” he said, calling the Covid-19 pandemic a reminder that all people are “tied together, as Dr King said, in a single garment of destiny”.
“Because we’re dealing with a deadly airborne disease, my neighbour coughs and I’m imperilled by the cough of my neighbour,” Mr Warnock said. “That doesn’t make my neighbour my enemy. That means that our destiny is tied together.”
In Philadelphia, Mr Biden and members of his family joined an assembly line in the car park of Philabundance, an organisation that distributes food to people in need, and helped fill about 150 boxes with fresh fruit and non-perishables.
Pope Francis marked the commemoration by saying Dr King’s message of equality through peaceful means remains more timely than ever, calling for unity, not division, and extinguishing hatred and “not holding on to it”.
“In today’s world, which increasingly faces the challenges of social injustice, division and conflict that hinder the realization of the common good, Dr King’s dream of harmony and equality for all people, attained through non-violent and peaceful means, remains ever timely,” Francis wrote.
Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on April 4 1968 while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Had he lived, he would have turned 92 on his birthday last Friday.