MLK Day draws crowds, sparks protests

ATLANTA — The inauguration of the nation’s first black president is a huge step toward realizing Martin Luther King Jr. ’s dream of racial equality, but there is still work to be done, King’s nephew told a large crowd Monday at the church where the civil-rights leader once preached.

Isaac Newton Farris, president of The King Center, told the jubilant crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that the election of Barack Obama was built on a foundation laid by King.

“There is definitely a spiritual connection between these two events,” Farris told the mostly black congregation that erupted in applause at any mention of Obama’s name.

Though Obama’s election to the nation’s highest office is a milestone, King’s final achievement will not be complete until disparities in healthcare, education and economics are eliminated, he said.

“The dream was not about an individual or any race of people attaining power,” Farris said. “It was a human dream.”

The sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church was packed with about 2,000 people, and dozens were left outside.

The celebration also included a keynote address from Pastor Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist who gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday. Warren urged the crowd to follow King’s example of service and selflessness.

“Tomorrow when I pray the invocation for my friend, Dr. King and a whole host of witnesses will be shouting,” Warren said. “Martin Luther King was a mighty tool in the hand of God. But God isn’t through. Justice is a journey and we’re getting further and further along.”

The selection of Warren, who opposes same-sex marriage in his home state of California, was controversial for both events. Obama’s decision to give Warren a role in the inauguration sparked protests from the gay community and the National Organization for Women. At the Atlanta service, about 100 protesters gathered across the street, and there was an outburst from at least one critic before Warren addressed the audience.

Farris defended The King Center’s choice of keynote speaker, saying that Warren’s stances on issues like global warming, AIDS and poverty are in keeping with King’s ideals.

“Warren is not so easy to pigeonhole as your average conservative,” Farris said.

Audience member Margarette Towner, a resident of Stockbridge in Atlanta’s southern suburbs, said she enjoyed Warren’s message and was only vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding him.

“Everybody has their own opinions,” Towner said, shrugging her shoulders. “That’s what makes us so different. That’s what makes America so great.”

King preached at Ebenezer from 1960 until his death in 1968, and a service commemorating his birthday and life is held there annually. On election night, the mainly black audience there was moved to tears when news networks announced that Obama had won the presidential race.

King would have been 80 years old on Jan. 15.

Only one of King’s three living children, Bernice, attended the Monday event. His sister, Christine King Farris, led the ceremony.

King’s son Martin Luther King III was in Washington, D.C., already and his other son, Dexter King — who lives in California — did not attend. His daughter Yolanda died in 2007.