ATLANTA — Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday found leaders still wrestling over his contested legacy against the backdrop of a presidential election year.
Republicans told a sometimes cool crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that they were honoring King’s civil rights legacy of service and political empowerment. But Democrats found more favor by highlighting the ways they said the current political and social order calls for more radical action in line with King’s principles.
Monday’s speeches at King’s onetime church were just one slice of the political struggle in Georgia, where Democrats believe they can make further inroads in the Republican controlled state, aided by diverse in-migration and a suburban backlash against President Donald Trump.
Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed earlier this month by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, said her upbringing on an Illinois farm was touched by King.
“Dr. King’s call to service, to sacrifice, to put others first, it shaped our home and inspired us to ask what Dr. King asked the world. ‘What are you doing for others?’” Loeffler said.
One of Loeffler’s potential Democratic opponents in a November special election is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current pastor at Ebenezer, which King and his father once led. Warnock, without mentioning Loeffler by name, said that honoring King means more than just voicing “lip service” on one weekend a year.
“Everyone wants to be seen standing where Dr. King stood. That’s fine, you’re welcome,” Warnock said. “But if today you would stand in this holy place, where Dr. King stood, make sure, that come tomorrow, we’ll find you standing where Dr. King stood.”
Of King, Warnock said that “too many people like to remember him and dismember him at the same time” calling Georgia “ground zero for voter suppression” and citing the failure of the state’s Republican leadership to fully expand the Medicaid health insurance program.
Others agreed with him, with keynote speaker Rev. Howard-John Wesley of Alexandria, Virginia, telling attendees that “we have lost the radicality” of King’s vision, talking about how King attacked the Vietnam War and the unequal American economy at the end of his career.
Loeffler made no mention of Trump or the Senate impeachment trial, but Democratic U.S. Rep Hank Johnson did, drawing applause when he mentioned impeachment and saying American democracy is “in grave danger.”
“Our communities are once again finding themselves on the front lines of fighting to protect our very republic,” Johnson said. “And it can be easy, brothers and sisters, in moments like these to despair. But even in our darkest hours, the legacy of Dr. King is a hope that dawn will come.”
Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger gamely took the stage, seeking to build confidence that his office supports broad voter participation and that the state’s new voting machines will guarantee a fair vote. Democrats led by former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams have attacked his actions.
“Every voter gets one vote. We all have a voice. We all count,” Raffensperger said.
King’s daughter Bernice spoke about the King holiday becoming a day of service, “a day on, not a day off.” She said the holiday needs a broader vision.
“A day on is not enough. What we need is a light on, committed to working vigilantly to build the beloved community,” she said. “A light on encompasses a commitment not just to service but to systemic change as well.”
The same kind of wrestling over what King means in the present moment was taking place elsewhere, with Vice President Mike Pence speaking Sunday at a church service in Memphis, Tennessee.
Pence spoke at the Holy City Church of God in Christ about King’s religion and how he “challenged the conscience of a nation to live up to our highest ideals by speaking to our common foundation of faith.”
Acknowledging the nation’s divisions, Pence said that if Americans rededicate themselves to the ideals that King advanced while striving to open opportunities for everyone, “we’ll see our way through these divided times and we’ll do our part in our time to form a more perfect union.”
As a presidential election looms this fall, divisions rankle, according to recent opinion polls.
Among black Americans, more than 80 percent said last year that President Donald Trump’s actions in office have made things worse for people like them, while only 4 percent said they thought Trump’s actions have been good for African Americans in general. That’s according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press Center for Public Affairs Research.
The same poll found about two-thirds of Americans overall disapproves of how Trump handles race relations.
Trump is seeking to woo black voters, hoping for more black support in critical swing states later this year. His campaign has stepped up outreach efforts, including to African Americans and Latinos, marking a departure from 2016 when Trump’s volunteer “National Diversity Coalition” struggled to make an impact. The campaign already has spent more than $1 million on black outreach, including radio, print and online advertising, the campaign has said.