ATLANTA — Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a preacher of peace and tolerance was lauded Monday as Americans marked his memorial day just over a week after the shootings in Arizona that killed six people and seriously wounded a congresswoman.
National and local politicians joined members of the King family at his former church in Atlanta to mark what would have been the civil rights icon’s 82nd birthday. It was also the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday established to honour King, who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
President Barack Obama said part of King’s legacy was about service and urged Americans to get out into their communities — a step he suggested would have special meaning following the Tucson rampage. The shooting killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.
“After a painful week where so many of us were focused on the tragedy, it’s good for us to remind ourselves of what this country is all about,” he told reporters as he and first lady Michelle Obama took part in a painting project at a school in Washington.
Attorney General Eric Holder told the audience at Ebenezer Baptist Church that the Arizona violence was a call to recommit itself to King’s values of nonviolence, tolerance, compassion and justice.
Holder praised King as “our nation’s greatest drum major of peace.”
“Last week a senseless rampage in Tuscon reminded us that more than 40 years after Dr. King’s own tragic death, our struggle to eradicate violence and to promote peace goes on,” Holder said.
Congressman John Lewis, who worked with King during the civil rights movement, issued a renewed call for Americans to unite in peace and love as King preached during his lifetime.
“If Dr. King could speak to us today, he would tell us that it does not matter how much we disapprove of another persons point of view, there is never a reason to deny another human being the respect he or she deserves,” Lewis said.
Members of the King family also laid a wreath at the Atlanta tombs of Martin Luther King Jr. and his widow, Coretta Scott King.
King was shot to death in 1968. He is the only American who was not a U.S. president to have a federal holiday named in his honour. He has been recognized on the third Monday in January since 1986.