Now in it’s 47th year, the MLK Commemorative Service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta remains a highlight for those who attend and watch the live television stream of the three-hour tribute to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This year’s speakers included civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and actor David Oyelowo, who played King in the movie Selma, among many others, and a powerful solo by Sandi Patty, who covered “How Great Thou Art.” Christine King Farris presided over the 47th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Commemorative Service, themed “Remember, Celebrate and Act.”
The Rev. Dr. Bernice King asked community leaders to continue to embrace Dr. King’s message of nonviolence and to continue to fight injustices, referencing the murders of unarmed black men – Michael Brown, 18; Eric Garner, 43 and Tamir Rice, 12, all 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 shared.
She even commented she’s a radical and believes firmly in die-ins. She was especially impressed by the youth who staged a demonstration in the sanctuary.
“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. I challenge you to work with us as we help this national choose nonviolence,” she also stated.
When he was 17, King sent now U.S. Rep. John Lewis a bus ticket to Birmingham, Alabama to march with him. Lewis shares when telling the congregation why King remains “a guiding light in my life.”
“The memory of such a great man can never, ever fade,” he said. “I still think about him almost every day.”
Actor David Oyelowo, whose father flew to the States from England and sat in the audience, admitted during the Atlanta commemoration that playing the role of King in the film Selma was a heavy burden. “I have four children and I cannot imagine walking through life every day knowing there were people on earth who wanted to take my four children’s lives and my wife’s life. And then to leave and go and do it anyway,” he starts.
Choked up and with tears in his eyes, he talked about his role as MLK for the film adaptation which showcased the march to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge Alabama in 1965 where civil rights demonstrators were beaten and teargassed. “I only stepped into his shoes for a moment, but I asked myself, ‘How did he do it?'” Oyelowo said.
Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn E. Boyd, president of Alabama State University and 22nd National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., delivered a fiery keynote address.
“We come today to honor a man, a man of purpose, a man of courage and character, a man of accomplishments and achievements, a man of God, who distinguished himself as a family man and a friend of God … a prolific, powerful and progressive prophet and preacher who knew that God had given him an assignment,” she says of Dr. King after directing the congregation to the Holy Bible’s Book of Psalms, chapter 9 in the King James Version.
“Today, we remember, and honor, and pay tribute to the one that God prepared for a mission to move people from vision to victory. Not just a people of Montgomery and Selma but a people throughout the world. … You will be pressed when you’re doing God’s work. We saw that in Dr. King’s life. They will press you and test you, and challenge you, and criticize you, and ostracize you, and question you, misrepresent you, and just plain lie on you.”
Before closing to a rousing applause, Boyd referenced for the excited audience the I Peter 4:12 and John 16:33, “Joshua was told ‘Be strong and of good courage.’Jesus said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So when they come after us in this generation, we have to be strong, stand toe-to-toe and say to them, ‘Bring it!’ because the Lord is my light, and my Salvation. Whom, shall I fear? Bring it! If God be for us, who can stand against us? Bring it! We are more than conquerors through Him that loves us.”
This year’s celebration marks MLK’s 86th birthday, the 29th anniversary of his death as a national holiday, and is the culmination of a 10-day celebration of his legacy.