MLK's legacy honored with tributes, rallies around nation
By KATE BRUMBACK
ATLANTA — Speakers honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at his spiritual home repeated the same message on his national holiday Monday: We've come a long way, but there's still much to be done to fulfill King's dream.
The holiday came against the backdrop of recent national protests over the deaths of unarmed black men and youths at the hands of the police around the U.S. Some new protests flared Monday: several dozen demonstrators blocked traffic while marching in Cleveland, Ohio, and protests also were reported in St. Louis and Seattle.
In Atlanta, King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, urged those gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church for the 47th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service to act out against injustice. She also said they should heed her father's message of nonviolence.
"We cannot act unless we understand what Dr. King taught us. He taught us that we still have a choice to make: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation," she said. "I challenge you to work with us as we help this nation choose nonviolence." The courage and sacrifice of the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s provide a model for those seeking to effect change today, she added.
She also made reference to the high-profile deaths. Those have included the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York City, as well as the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland. All three were killed by white officers.
"I cannot help but remember many women and men who have been gunned down, not by a bad police force but by some bad actors in a police force," she said.
The Northeast Ohio Media Group reported about 60 people gathered Monday at a recreation center where a Cleveland police officer fatally shot the 12-year-old. Their march ended at the city's public square and police told the group some arrests were made.
In Seattle, authorities reported a handful of arrests after dozens chanting "black lives matter" disrupted traffic, blocking part of a state highway and interstate off-ramps. Seattle officials advised motorists to take alternate routes when one side of a key state route was temporarily blocked.
The deaths have sparked a nationwide debate over police use of force, further fueled after two New York City police officers were shot to death last month by a man who suggested in online posts that he was retaliating for deaths in Missouri and New York. The gunman, who was black, committed suicide.
The name of the New York man who died in a white police officer's chokehold was invoked by some during peaceful tributes in New York.
"We will move forward as a city. We will move forward to deeper respect for all," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed at the city's main MLK Day event in Brooklyn.
Elsewhere, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that two dozen protesters interrupted a King event at Harris-Stowe State University, leading to angry confrontations with students outside a campus auditorium. Police kept watch, but no arrests were reported.
President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, sought to focus on the next generation. In Washington, Obama and his wife Michelle went with one of their daughters, Malia, to a site for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington to paint murals and assemble "literacy kits" of flashcards and books to help youngsters improve their reading and writing skills.
In Philadelphia, activists pressed for several social justice causes under the King mantle, saying they wanted better police accountability, more education funding and a higher minimum wage. And in Denver some held signs up about the recent deaths as tens of thousands, including cowboys on horseback, made it one of the biggest turnouts in years for Denver's event. Drill teams and floats paraded in Las Vegas under the theme: "Living the Dream: Where Do We Go From Here?"
In Atlanta, many reflected both on the present and the past.
A day after he joined other actors from the movie "Selma" and hundreds of others in Alabama for a march to Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge — where civil rights protesters were beaten and tear-gassed in 1965 — actor David Oyelowo said during the Atlanta commemoration that playing King was a heavy burden.
He cried as he talked about putting himself in King's place. "I only stepped into his shoes for a moment, but I asked myself, 'How did he do it?'" Oyelowo said.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis told the Atlanta crowd he was just 17 when King sent him a bus ticket to head to Alabama to join the civil rights movement. Lewis, who marched alongside King, recalled the man he called his hero as a man who is "still a guiding light in my life."
"The memory of such a great man can never, ever fade," Lewis said. "I still think about him almost every day."
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington and Randall Chase in Wilmington, Delaware, contributed to this report.
The bright sunshine only emphasized the excitement, joy and pride the crowd showed Monday afternoon as the Statesboro community enjoyed the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade.
People of all ages and races lined the streets as church groups, dignitaries, high school bands and others marched the parade route, which stretched from East Olliff Street down North Main Street to West Main Street and then on to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Some rode scooters, bicycles and motorcycles, while others rode in classic cars or limousines. People shouted greetings from floats and from the sidewalks as the parade passed, and goodies flowed as participants handed out peppermints, fliers, lollipops and promotional items.
The winning float, created by Mount Zion AME Church, featured a spinning globe with the words "One World, One Dream" below. Another entry in the parade had a woman standing at a pulpit, offering spiritual words as she passed.
A marching group chanted, "No justice, no peace." Yet another float offered the words "Unconditional Love," and still another, "Hands Up, Don't Shoot." "No justice" and "hands up" have become popular chants during protests across the nation in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Carolyn M. Smith and her husband, John W. Smith, sat together on the sidewalk, calling out to passersby and greeting friends. They each appeared to enjoy the parade, and both recalled living during a time when black community members would not have been allowed to gather in the streets, much less hold a parade.
"I'm happy to be a part of this, seeing a (celebration) of the legacy, the history," Carolyn Smith said. "Dr. Martin Luther King is a symbol of what America is supposed to be, what everyone is supposed to enjoy."
She recalled being one of nine black students who attended Georgia Southern College right after desegregation.
"There was resistance" by people who "drove past and called us names, the N-word," she said.
Professors would ignore her when she raised a hand to answer questions in class, but "after a few years, it all calmed down," she said.
Today the world is much different in a positive way, she said. Attitudes and acceptance have improved. Her husband said it hasn't changed enough yet, however.
"There was a time we couldn't gather in the streets," John Smith said.
While things have changed, there are areas where some people still aren't treated fairly.
"It still hasn't come full circle yet," he said. "I'd like to see equality for everybody."
For many viewing the MLK parade, the idea of segregation and different rules for different races is only a thing they have heard people talking about or read about in history books. Statesboro High School student Jecorey Young, 15, said he couldn't imagine living in that era.
Still, he understands the freedom and equality King pursued, he said.
"He was for people — other-colored people, white people, black people," Young said. "I appreciate and applaud him for that."
While Young never experienced segregation, he said he can see how things have changed since that time. "It has changed a lot," he said. "It's better than it was, and we can all get along."
The parade was hosted by the Bulloch County Branch of the NAACP, led by President Pearl Brown. Local veteran and addiction counselor Lonnie Simmons Jr. served as grand marshal.
The parade was followed by an NAACP Community Service Program at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Bulloch Street, with Bulloch County school board member Glennera Martin as the keynote speaker.
The program included the congregation singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "We Shall Overcome," the latter of which saw everyone join hands and sway while singing. The Voices of Distinction, a choir consisting of Melissa Bennett, Robin Lanier, Shunta Ellis Rivers, City Councilman Gary Lewis and school board member Maurice Hill, led the congregation in uplifting songs.
And dancers from Original First African Baptist Church performed a liturgical dance. That performance peaked with the singer in the background music saying he wanted to let go of that which was holding him back from God, while the dancers picked up pieces of paper with words such as "no faith," "lust" and "selfishness" and let them fall onto the floor.
Martin, a retired educator who was sworn in earlier this month for her first term on the Board of Education, read the lyrics to "Wake Up Everybody" by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. It starts: "Wake up everybody, no more sleepin' in bed. No more backward thinkin', time for thinkin' ahead."
She told the audience packed into Tabernacle Baptist that it's time to wake up and do something about the top problems facing many people today, such as crime, low economic status and lack of educational opportunity.
"Let's not lose this day in words, but allow it to result in productive changes for Bulloch County and Statesboro, Georgia," Martin said. "We can do all the flowery words we want to, but if it does not make a difference two or three months from now, it's null and void. If you aren't part of the problem, please be a part of the solution."
Editor Jason Wermers contributed to this report.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.