ATLANTA — Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr., delivering jobs and justice and protecting “the sacred right to vote, a right from which all other rights flow,” President Joe Biden said Monday.
Martin Luther King Day is a moment when a mirror is held up to America, the president said in a video address.
“It’s time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand,” Biden said. “It’s time for every American to stand up. Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand?”
Major holiday events included marches in several cities and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. service at the slain civil rights leader’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock is the senior pastor. Pews have been packed by politicians in past years, but given the pandemic, many offered pre-recorded speeches instead.
Monday would have been the 93rd birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was just 39 when he was assassinated in 1968 while helping sanitation workers strike for better pay and workplace safety in Memphis, Tennessee.
King’s eldest son criticized Biden and Congress as a whole on Monday for failing to pass voting rights legislation, even as 19 Republican-led states have made it harder to vote in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims about election-rigging.
“You were successful with infrastructure, which is a great thing — but we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the same unencumbered right to vote,” Martin Luther King III said.
Senate Republicans remain unified in opposition to the Democrats’ voting bills. Biden described their stonewalling as part of “a true attack on our democracy, from the Jan. 6 insurrection to the onslaught of Republican anti-voting laws in an number of states.”
“It’s no longer just about who gets to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote. And whether your vote counts at all. It’s about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion,” Biden said.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s Black Republican, countered with a series of King Day-themed videos he said would emphasize positive developments on civil rights. Scott sidestepped criticism about GOP actions and accused Democrats of labeling his party members as racists.
“To compare or conflate people who oppose his positions as being racists and traitors to the country is not only insulting and infuriating, it’s dead wrong,” Scott told The Associated Press.
Warnock, now running for reelection as Georgia’s first Black senator, said in his speech to the sparse crowd at Ebenezer that “everybody loves Dr. King, they just don’t always love what he represents.”
“Let the word go forth, you can not remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time,” Warnock said. “If you will speak his name you have to stand up for voting rights, you have to stand up on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and the disenfranchised.”
King, who delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech while leading the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, considered racial equality inseparable from alleviating poverty and stopping war. His insistence on nonviolent protest continues to influence activists pushing for civil rights and social change.
The U.S. economy “has never worked fairly for Black Americans — or, really, for any American of color,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech delivered Monday, one of many by national leaders acknowledging unmet needs for racial equality on Martin Luther King Day.
Yellen referred to King’s famous speech in remarks she recorded for delivery at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network breakfast in Washington, noting the financial metaphor he used when describing the founding fathers’ promises of equality.
King said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that “America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” He called it ”a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt!”
“It is compelling rhetoric, but I also think Dr. King knew it was a more than a metaphor. He knew that economic injustice was bound up in the larger injustice he fought against. From Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans – or, really, for any American of color,” Yellen said.
She said the Biden administration has sought to ensure that no economic institution fails to work for people of color. Equity was built into the American Rescue Plan so that communities of color would get pandemic relief, and Treasury is injecting $9 billion into Community Development Financial Institutions and Minority Depository Institutions traditionally poorly served by the financial sector.
“There is still much more work Treasury needs to do to narrow the racial wealth divide,” she said.
Atlanta’s planned events also included a march, a rally and a voter registration drive by the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and Youth Service America.