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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

King Day goes meta over how best to honor MLK in 2014

  • Joeff Davis
  • "The King that we often celebrate, no one would have assassinated," Ebenezer Pastor Raphael Warnock reminded those in attendance at Monday's King commemorative service.

There was something different about Monday's annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Across the nation and in his hometown, it was a celebration in which the very way we choose to remember and pay tribute to King was repeatedly called into question.

"What did you come to this celebration to see?" Ebenezer Baptist Church Senior Pastor and keynote speaker Rev. Raphael Warnock preached near the end of Monday's four-hour commemorative service in Atlanta. "Did you come to see the real Martin Luther King [or] did you come to see the safer, domesticated Martin Luther King Jr.?"

Warnock echoed sentiments expressed throughout the morning as speakers ranging from lawmakers to an undocumented student stepped to the podium, often to challenge the homogenized and pasteurized version of King and to reignite the benign version of the dream many believe has lulled the nation into a false sense of security.

"The King that we often celebrate, no one would have assassinated," Rev. Warnock reminded everyone in attendance. "Prophets are killed for a reason."

After years, even decades, in which those charged with upholding King's legacy have struggled to recontextualize his message for a post-civil rights era, there suddenly seems to be a wealth of hot-button issues through which to reconcile his radicalism.

Gov. Nathan Deal pledged to find
  • Joeff Davis
  • Gov. Nathan Deal pledged to find "an appropriate way to honor Dr. King on our Capitol Hill." He left the service before Rev. Raphael Warnock insisted he "expand Medicaid in Georgia and expand now."

While denouncing poverty and income inequality, school-to-prison pipelines, outdated immigration, and limited healthcare reform, politicians and preachers alike used the platform to push for public policy in line with King's vision of a "beloved community."

Rev. Bernice King called for a "no shots fired" King Day, an allusion to both the physical violence perpetrated in school shootings and the increased culture of disrespect. Rev. Warnock demanded Congress raise the minimum wage and extend unemployment insurance to Americans. "Poverty is its own violence," he preached. "Don't just talk about the violence of the poor, talk about the violence of poverty."

Mayor Kasim Reed focused on the education system's failure to present school as a means to a dream for children. He also took the opportunity to align his ongoing efforts toward revitalizing Atlanta's MLK corridor.

"Shame on me and shame on all of us, that in the city where Dr. Martin Luther King is from, Martin Luther King Drive looks like every other Martin Luther King Drive in the United States of America," Reed said during an impassioned speech. "We're going to do something about that."

A service that local, state, and national politicians have always used to pander to Atlanta's old-guard black elite became more politicized with the presence of Governor Nathan Deal. In what has already become a highly contested election year for the governor, he was there to pledge his commitment "to finding an appropriate way to honor Dr. King on our Capitol Hill." His statement comes in the wake of proposed legislation to replace the Thomas Watson statue Deal removed from outside the entrance to the capitol last December with a King statue. Last week, Georgia's GOP party began floating the idea of backing such legislation and possibly taking it a step further by naming an under-construction park next to the state capitol after MLK.

While Gov. Deal garnered a standing ovation Monday after expressing his intention to permanently honor King at the capitol, others suggested it was not only a symbolic move but a hypocritical one, considering Deal's continued denial of statewide Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act or immigration reform.

"With all due respect, if the governor really wanted to do a tribute to Dr. King's memory, he would expand Medicaid," Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution following the service. "A statue can't take you to the emergency room."

After promising not to be "coerced into expansion" during his recent State of the State address, Gov. Deal was mum on Medicaid expansion at Monday's service. But he did boast about his ongoing criminal justice reforms which focus on rehabilitating prisoners in the state of Georgia. It also garnered an enthusiastic response, but not enough to save him from further criticism.

"To our governor, expand Medicaid in Georgia and expand Medicaid now," Rev. Warnock said later during his sermon. But he was only preaching to the choir by then, as Deal had departed shortly after addressing the masses.

Elder Cal Murrell, aka the Happy Preacher, shouts exultations during Monday's service on Ebenezer.
  • Joeff Davis
  • Elder Cal Murrell, aka the Happy Preacher, shouts exultations during Monday's service on Ebenezer.

Between the ritualistic pomp and politics that have come to characterize the annual service, it's perhaps the only time each year when the people sharing pews represent such divergent swaths of Atlanta. Those in attendance ranged from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter and U.S. senatorial candidate Michelle Nunn - got a spontaneous endorsement from Rev. Warnock when he pretended to prematurely acknowledge her as "Senator Michelle" before saying, "Oh, I'm sorry" - to "General" Larry Platt of "Pants On the Ground" fame and Elder Cal Murrell, also known as "the Happy Preacher" due to the passionate exclamations he tends to shout out during such services.

Those who remained until the end got to hear two of the morning's most powerful tributes, which came from younger speakers added onto the program after being shut out of last year's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in D.C. due to time constraints, said Rev. Bernice King.

Undocumented student Sofia Campos and Phillip Agnew of Dream Defenders, called for the rebirth of a movement and a spirit that's seemingly been dormant for decades.

Campos laid out her fight against the ban on undocumented students. "We are on the freedom side, what side are you on?" Campos had to repeat it several times before the crowd realized it wasn't a rhetorical question.

Agnew, whose Dream Defenders organization led sit-ins at Florida's state capitol in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, warned the audience against "that tranquilizing dope of complacency."

"For anybody who was wondering where young people were, we're ready," Agnew said, before alluding to John Lewis' long-held idea of the right kind of fight. "Congressman Lewis, with utmost respect, I'm ready for 'good trouble' and 'necessary trouble.'"

See a photo gallery of Monday's service at Ebenezer

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