ATLANTA | The nation observed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday with thousands volunteering for service projects and more reflecting on his lessons of nonviolence and civility in the week following the shootings in Arizona.
Six people were killed in Tucson and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is fighting for her life. The violent outburst was a reminder to many gathered at King’s former church in Atlanta that the Baptist preacher’s message remained relevant nearly four decades after his own untimely death at the hands of an assassin.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. praised him as “our nation’s greatest drum major of peace” and said the Jan. 8 bloodshed was a call to recommit to King’s values of nonviolence, tolerance, compassion and justice.
“Last week, a senseless rampage in Tucson reminded us that more than 40 years after Dr. King’s own tragic death, our struggle to eradicate violence and to promote peace goes on,” Mr. Holder said.
President Obama honored the legacy of King by joining a painting project at a school on Capitol Hill. Mr. Obama brought his family to Stuart Hobson Middle School, where he and first lady Michelle Obama helped paint bright red apple characters on pillars in the lunchroom to encourage healthier eating.
Their daughters, Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9, sat separately at tables and worked on other painting projects.
Mr. Obama said King’s legacy is also about service, in addition to his pursuit of justice and equality. Mr. Obama urged Americans to get out into their communities on Monday a step he suggested would have special meaning after the Arizona shootings.
“After a painful week where so many of us were focused on tragedy, it’s good for us to remind ourselves of what this country is all about,” he told reporters. “This kind of service project is what’s best in us.”
In Atlanta, national and local politicians joined members of the King family at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to mark what would have been the civil rights icon’s 82nd birthday. Members of the King family also laid a wreath at the tombs of King and his widow, Coretta Scott King, on the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday established to honor the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The largely black audience of about 2,000 gathered at Ebenezer where King preached from 1960 until his death in 1968 included parents and children, members of the clergy, politicians and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who worked with King during the civil rights movement, issued a renewed call for Americans to unite in peace and love as King preached during his lifetime.
“If Dr. King could speak to us today, he would tell us that it does not matter how much we disapprove of another person’s point of view, there is never a reason to deny another human being the respect he or she deserves,” Mr. Lewis said.
In Philadelphia, hundreds of volunteers including Mayor Michael Nutter helped refurbish computers for needy residents as part of the city’s “day of service” events to mark the King holiday.
“The computer is your passport, not only to the future but to knowing what’s going on around you,” Mr. Nutter said. The effort was part of the $25 million federally funded Freedom Rings Partnership, which aims to deliver 5,000 computers over the next few years to people in the city, where 41 percent of residents lack Internet access.
King is the only American who was not a U.S. president to have a federal holiday named in his honor. He has been recognized on the third Monday in January since 1986.
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