By Maria Saporta
I love Atlanta most during the annual King holiday week.
It gives us a moment reflect and recalibrate how well we’re doing in light of the lofty vision and ideals that Martin Luther King Jr. shared with us in his sermons, speeches and letters.
Although nearly every community in the country honors King in the middle of January, no city does it quite like Atlanta. We are the place destined to be accountable to King’s dream.
That message really hit home for me during an amazing ceremony at the State Capitol on Jan. 18. The Martin Luther King Advisory Council convenes top state leaders every year in a tribute to King.
Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston all spoke with pride and respect for King – a Georgia native who led the civil rights movement in the South and garnered international acclaim for justice, equality and peace until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the young age of 39.
But what is most incredible is that a half Century later, King’s calls to end racism, war and poverty continue to resonate – messages that are as powerful and relevant in today’s climate as they were in the 1960s.
And that’s why I love Atlanta. We are the city that can hold our state and our nation accountable to King’s teachings and be mindful of how much more we need to do.
Two great women did just that during the ceremony under the Gold Dome.
Rev. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center and the youngest daughter of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.; and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, the executive chair of Purpose Built Communities that is working to revitalize neighborhoods and reverse the cycle of poverty.
As they spoke, they had a captive audience – often talking directly to Kemp, Duncan and Ralston – without ever mentioning their names.
In their own special way, they were holding our top state leaders accountable. And to their credit, Kemp, Duncan and Ralston listened and clapped at critical moments during the two keynote speeches by Bernice King and Shirley Franklin.
“We are always honored to be here under the Gold Dome of the State Capitol,” King said. “As we consider the continued polarization and the divisiveness in our nation, I’m always delighted when we celebrate the King holiday, because most times it is at least a moment when regardless of our political ideology, we come together.”
Both King and Franklin then challenged the people gathered at the State Capitol, which included key state legislators and appointed officials as well as guests.
“My hope and prayer is that we as a nation will move beyond the ceremony of honoring Dr. King. And move into really practicing and living out his teachings that he left for us,” said Bernice King, who was inspired by a 1961 speech her father gave called the American dream – one where he described humanity as being tied in a single garment of destiny. “The authentic King believed that we will not realize the true extent of our interconnectedness and build the beloved community unless we commit to the eradication of what he called the giant triplets of racism, materialization and militarism.”
Shirley Franklin took it a step further, recounting the words of Marvin Gaye’s song: ““What’s going on?” And then asked: “Where are we now?”
“Things are better but not great for many Georgians,” the former mayor said. “Hundreds of thousands of Georgians live in poverty because of low wages and wage stagnation.”
She then told state leaders that no one present could afford to support a family earning a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“We claim we are the best place to live in the world. Let’s prove it. Let Georgia raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour,” Franklin said. “Too often we tout the advantages of being a low-cost state – low-cost for business and high risk for children and their families.”
Franklin said the lack of healthcare options for Georgians is proof we don’t really understand the message of Martin King,” she said. “Let Georgia expand Medicaid and prove we care about everyone.”
Franklin then called for greater investment in public education – especially for early childhood education and she called for greater investment in needs-based scholarships for people seeking to go to universities or technical colleges.
“All are signs we aren’t committed to making Dr. King’s dream a reality for all Georgians,” Franklin said. “We still debate whether immigrants are welcome in Georgia or should be rounded up by vigilantes, and whether religious freedom means you can legally discriminate against someone.”
Kemp, who talked about rounding up immigrants when he was in a primary race for governor, sat attentively as Franklin spoke.
“Celebrating Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday offers you and me a chance to examine ourselves,” she said. “Public policy, elected and appointed leaders, are we aligned with King or are we sweeping the hard social, ethical, legal and economic issues of the day under the rug?”
Franklin continued by saying: “Martin King’s birthday is the best day of the year to make it plain, because you cannot celebrate the King holiday and legacy authentically unless we follow his lead. Martin King made it plain, and his legacy is a legacy of courage and audacity. He pushed the country to accept its moral obligation to its citizens – all citizens and to all people. Dr. King was not afraid to make leaders and everyday people uncomfortable, and we shouldn’t be afraid either.”
Then Franklin called for expanding healthcare for all Georgians and for funding early childhood education.
“We need to embrace America’s history as a nation of immigrants and adopt fair, just and compassionate policies,” she said. “We need to reverse our voter suppression policies and honor the rights of voters to fair, transparent elections. We need to increase the minimum wage, finance programs to close the wealth gap between women, whites, blacks and other minorities. We need to address the policies, practices and traditions that discriminate and separate us – racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, NIMBYism, sexism.”
And looking forward, Franklin said that when we celebrate King’s birthday in 2020, “let us celebrate him by reporting on our progress in ending the human rights ills of our time. That is what King did. That is the challenge.”
In her closing comments, Franklin said: “There is no place for hypocrites in an authentic King birthday celebration. Celebration is fine. Action is better. This is a time for true believers in his message – fairness, justice, fair play, transparency, economic opportunity, peace. If we tout our successes, let’s honor King by telling the truth and pushing Georgia and ourselves to be the beloved community.
Atlanta is a city where we have leaders – some who date as far back as to the early days of the civil rights movement – who are holding us all accountable.
The King holiday has become our annual tune up to see how we’re living up to King’s dream and to recalibrate our commitment to improve our world in whatever ways we can.
That’s Atlanta‘s destiny – to accept King’s challenge and weave our own garment of humanity.