(ABC NEWS) — As the country observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, the civil rights icon’s daughter is challenging people to continue his fight to achieve what he called “a beloved community.”
While King was just 39 years old when an assassin took his life in Memphis in 1968, his legacy of change through nonviolent protest is as relevant as ever, Dr. Bernice King said at a news conference announcing events to commemorate the holiday.
As she celebrates what would have been her father’s 91st birthday this month, she said the world is in desperate need to follow his example, noting that the United States is in the throes of a gun-violence epidemic, has come to the brink of war with Iran and is enduring a crisis in Washington that has led to the impeachment of the president.
“Considering the current condition of our collective conscious and the pressing need to work toward the ‘beloved community,’ it is fitting that this year’s King holiday observance theme is, ‘King 2020 Vision — The Beloved Community: The Fierce Urgency of Now’,” she announced at the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, standing in front of a blown-up photo of her father and mother, Coretta Scott King.
The theme for the holiday is derived from King’s 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
Quoting from her father’s book, Bernice King said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted by the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”
“We don’t want to be too late,” she said.
Bernice King encouraged people to spend the day being of service to their communities and embracing her father’s “teachings in creating a more just, peaceful and humane world.”
Andrew Young, the former ambassador to the United Nations, Georgia congressman and mayor of Atlanta, who was part of King’s inner circle, told ABC News that he couldn’t think of a more appropriate theme for this year’s celebration.
“This has always been the dream of Martin Luther King, that we would learn to live together as brothers and sisters, rather and perish together as fools,” Young said.
Surprisingly, Young said Rev. King was never keen about celebrating his birthday, which is recognized throughout the world with annual events in Japan, Canada and Holland.
“He sort of took it for granted and he very seldom celebrated it,” Young said. “He usually took vacation time right after Christmas though his birthday, and he would go to Jamaica every year and write a book. So he worked through his birthday. But it was a time he took off from marching and did his writing and thinking.”
In 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan signed a law making the third Monday of January a federal holiday. MLK Day was first observed by the nation in 1986 and has since been adopted by all 50 states.
Born in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 1929, King grew up listening to his father preach at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. His father instilled in him a strong sense of justice and compassion and King became inspired to fight racist Jim Crow laws.
At the age of 15, he enrolled at Morehouse College, a private historically black men’s college in Atlanta, and later took up theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
Upon becoming pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, he set out to minister to the world, pointing out racial injustice everywhere he saw it, beginning in his adopted hometown.
In 1955, he led the first major nonviolent demonstration against segregation in the United States when an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus. During a 382-day boycott of the public buses, King was beaten and arrested and his home was bombed.
But the demonstration led to the 1956 Supreme Court ruling making segregation on public buses unconstitutional.
As the Civil Rights Movement grew in the South, King coordinated what became known as the Birmingham Campaign in the spring of 1963, in which he and black supporters staged sit-ins at lunch counters of white-run diners in Alabama’s biggest city that refused to serve them. The Birmingham protesters were met with violent attacks from police, who used high-pressured fire hoses and sicced police dogs on participants to break up demonstrations.
At one of the protests, King was arrested and thrown in jail. During his incarceration, he wrote what became known as the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” a manifesto of sorts in which he argued that people had “a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
The violence in Birmingham prompted President John F. Kennedy to say, “The events in Birmingham… have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”
In August 1963, King organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“We didn’t know whether anybody was going to come,” Young noted. “I can remember getting up early in the morning and going out to the Lincoln Memorial and there were a few people scattered around and I had some anxious moments until about 11:30 when the buses started rolling up.”
The march drew more than 250,000 people to the National Mall and created a catalyst for the introduction of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was eventually signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, ending segregation in public places and banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
During the demonstration, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which he laid out his vision of a country where there was equality for all regardless of race.
“We had a very strong Southern black movement and the March on Washington made it a national integrated movement because on the trains coming down from the North there were as many white people as there were black people,” Young said.
King garnered worldwide attention by organizing civil rights protests throughout the country and in 1964, at the age of 35, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, saying he accepted the honor at a time when “22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice.”
Young recalled that King received word of the prize while at Saint Joseph Hospital in Atlanta, where he was getting a medical checkup.
“He was shocked,” Young said. “He thought he was dreaming.”
One of King’s first visitors at the hospital that day was Roman Catholic Archbishop Paul John Hallinan of Atlanta, Young said.
“I moved away from the bed and they were sitting there talking, and all of a sudden I heard Archbishop Hallinan say, ‘May I give you my blessing?'” Young recalled. “And Martin said, ‘Oh, of course. I need all the blessings I can get.’ And [Hallinan] said something in Latin, and then he got down on his knees and said, ‘May I receive yours?'”
Young added, “I never thought I would see a Roman Catholic priest on his knees asking for the blessing of a black Baptist preacher.”
He said the moment symbolized King’s vision of “a beloved community.”
“The idea of ‘a beloved community’ is a community where people who are different … learn to appreciate each other, rather than be threatened by each other,” Young said.