By ERRIN HAINES (Associated Press)
The voice of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. again filled the halls of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and a pipe organ triumphantly announced the reopening of the sacred sanctuary regarded as the birthplace of the civil rights icon’s vision of justice, equality and a nonviolent society.
The King family was joined by members of the Civil Rights Movement and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in celebrating the reopening of Ebenezer, called the cornerstone of King’s legacy. Salazar said the church is “hallowed ground for a nation still very much in progress.”
“To be here this afternoon is to feel that history and remember our personal connection,” Salazar told the crowd gathered in the building, which was closed to visitors in 2007.
Ebenezer’s Heritage Sanctuary has been restored to its original appearance from 1960 to 1968, when King co-pastored there with his father. Work began on the $8 million project in 2000, and includes a return of the original pulpit furniture and furnishings, architectural and paint finishes, the baptismal pool and choir loft seating.
It also restored King’s most important title: preacher, said his youngest daughter, Bernice King, who delivered the keynote address at the ceremony.
“I’m happy that so many people will come to this place … that will stand as a reckoning point for millions of people all around the world,” she said. “You must remember always the pastor and the pastor’s mission: To redeem the soul of America. He loved God. He obeyed God and he loved God’s people.”
Excerpts of King’s most famed sermons were piped into the sanctuary before the ceremony began.
“Much comes to my mind as I stand here this afternoon, because I grew up in Ebenezer,” a smiling Martin Luther King III, president and chief executive officer of The King Center, told the audience.
His daughter, Yolanda Renee King, opened the ceremony by ringing a liberty bell near the pulpit.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery attended the ceremony and said he had many fond memories of the church, where he often met to discuss strategy for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he co-founded with King in 1957.
“I can’t tell you how it feels to me to be standing here in this spot, in this place, at this hour,” Lowery said from the pulpit where King delivered his sermons more than four decades ago. “This church and this ministry have been significant in the history of this country for a long time. I thank God that it remains here to be seen.”
King was born just blocks from Ebenezer on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta, and grew up in the church. His father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. — known as “Daddy King” preached there and was a local civil rights activist. His grandfather, A.D. Williams, preceded him and also fought segregation during the early 20th century.
King is also buried next to the church, in a crypt alongside his widow, Coretta Scott King.
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, current pastor of Ebenezer and a King scholar, said Friday’s ceremony was not only a restoration of a building, but of a movement.
“We must rediscover lost values,” he said. “The Black church has been the conscience of America. We held vigil for that which is truest and best in the American spirit. We still have work to do. We can’t be silent.”
During the ceremony, King’s only living sibling, Christine King Farris, was made an honorary park ranger by National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.
“This day is a day of tremendous emotional resonance for me,” said Farris, who was baptized by her father at Ebenezer when she was six years old. “I’ve tried to share as much as I can, being the last survivor of the nuclear family.”
Ebenezer is the anchor of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which welcomes more than 700,000 national and international visitors annually.