Atlanta A scholar and activist invoked the fiery side of Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric Monday at the civil rights icon’s church, urging the audience not to “sanitize” King’s legacy or let the president off the hook on issues like poverty.
Across the country, Americans marked what would have been King’s 81st birthday with rallies and parades. And days ahead of the anniversary of his historic inauguration, President Barack Obama honored King by serving meals to the needy.
But in the city where the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner was born, it was Princeton University professor Cornel West who reminded listeners that King’s message of nonviolence came with a fiery urgency. West delivered a passionate keynote address to hundreds at Ebenezer Baptist Church on the 25th federal observance of King’s birthday.
West told the crowd to remember King’s call to help others and not enshrine his legacy in “some distant museum.” Instead, West offered, King should be remembered as a vital person whose powerful message was once even considered dangerous by the FBI.
“I don’t want to sanitize Martin Luther King Jr.,” said West, who teaches in Princeton’s Center for African American Studies and is the author of “Race Matters” and 19 other books. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t even mention his name without shivering and shuddering.”
West also told the mostly black audience to hold Obama’s administration accountable even as they celebrate his historic presidency. The anniversary of Obama’s inauguration as the country’s first black president — seen by many blacks as part of the fulfillment of King’s dream — is Wednesday.
“Even with your foot on the brake, there are too many precious brothers and sisters under the bus,” West said of Obama. “Where is the talk about poverty? We’ve got to protect him and respect him, but we’ve also got to correct him if the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is going to stay alive.”
In Washington, D.C., Obama honored King’s legacy of helping others serving lunch at a social services organization. Later Monday, Obama discussed the civil rights movement with a group of black elders and their grandchildren. On Monday night he spoke at a King Day concert at the Kennedy Center.