On MLK Day, National Leaders Acknowledge Unmet Needs for Racial Equality

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

NBC Universal, Inc. The family of Martin Luther King Jr. crossed D.C.’s new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge on Monday as the world honors King’s life and legacy. News4’s Justin Finch reports.

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 behing 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.

This holiday marks what 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 at a news conference following a march for voting rights legislation in Washington, D.C.

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Pastor and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in this March 29, 1966, photograph.King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, in a killing that sent shock waves throughout American society. His killer, James Earl Ray, confessed to the shooting and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Dr. King seen at home with his wife Coretta and daughter Yolanda May 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama.
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American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on the telephone after encountering a white mob protesting against the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama, May 26, 1961.
Children are attacked by dogs and water cannons during a protest against segregation organized by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in May 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery.
Dr. King appears on the television news program "Face The Nation,'" April 16, 1967.
A young boy listens during a speech by Dr. King near the Montgomery, Alabama, State Capitol steps.
Dr. King at the Soviet Sector border of the Berlin Wall in Bernauer Strasse, Berlin, Germany, Sept.12, 1964. Werner Steltzer, director of the Berlin Information Center is indicating points of interest.
An unspecified photo of Dr. King.
Crowds march down the street to attend a speech by Dr. King in Chicago, Illinois, on the same day James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers, were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. King waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Dr. King speaks at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church February 1968 in Washington, D.C.
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with civil rights leaders in the White House, including Dr. King (left) in this undated photo.
Civil rights leaders, including Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph and Walther Reuther, hold hands as they lead a crowd of hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.
Dr. King and Malcolm X wait for a press conference on March 26, 1964.
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Dr. King preaching at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England, on Dec. 6, 1964.
Dr. King lying in state in Memphis, Tennessee, as his colleagues pay their respects to him. From right: Andrew Young, Bernard Lee and Reverend Ralph Abernathy.
A large crowd of mourners follow the casket of Dr. King through the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. Two men carry a large sign with King's face.
Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King, and her daughter, Yolanda, sit in a car as it leaves for Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta, Georgia.

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.

Vice President Kamala Harris sent a prerecorded message to the Ebenezer service, saying that “in Georgia and across our nation, anti-voter laws are being passed that could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote ... that is one out of six people in our country.”

“We know that this assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American, in every community, in every political party,” she said.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate's only 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.

The family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is honoring him on Monday by leading a voting rights march in Washington D.C. CEO Andrea Hailey makes the case that voting rights is this generation's civil rights issue.

“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.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the entire nation pauses in remembrance of the Civil Rights icon. But did you know it took nearly 32 years of fighting for the day to become a federal holiday? NBCLX breaks down the events that led to a national celebration in honor of Dr. King.

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, building equity into the American Rescue Plan and injecting $9 billion into community and minority-run financial institutions poorly served by Wall Street.

“There is still much more work Treasury needs to do to narrow the racial wealth divide,” she said.

Former President Barack Obama shared a picture of King's granddaughter Yolanda admiring a bust of the civil rights leader he kept in the Oval Office. “The fight for voting rights takes perseverance,” Obama tweeted. “As Dr. King said, ‘There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going.’ May we honor his memory through action forged in faith.”

King “saw a great injustice in his world and fought to right that wrong,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a recorded message played at Ebenezer. “His methods ultimately led to success and showed all of us that taking the high road is the best path to achieving lasting change."

Democrat Stacey Abrams, now trying again to defeat Kemp as he seeks reelection, tweeted that King's call remains clear: “Deliver justice for the poor, protect those targeted by hate, defend the freedom to vote, and demand that our leaders fight current malice as the best bulwark against future harm.”

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