I am so proud of Bernice A. King. She is rising to the occasion as a national civil and human rights leader in the sterling tradition of her parents, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Now let me say right off that we are not related. Her mother’s Scotts are from Alabama and my father’s Scotts are from Mississippi. Although, when you think about it, if you go back far enough it is possible that we came from the same family. And, heck, we’re all part of the same family anyway – the human race.
I had the privilege of seeing her operate up close during last week’s 50th anniversary celebration of the historic 1963 March on Washington, made famous by the crowd that turned out and her father’s “I have a dream” speech. It is worth noting that she was only five months old during the time of the 1963 march.
She said she had worked on plans for the day of celebration and thoughtful looking forward for more than a year. It showed. It seemed to be a flawless celebration. The morning interfaith service at Shiloh Baptist Church was moving and rich in spirit. Especially memorable was the “duet” remarks by the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a contemporary of MLK, and his son, the Rev. Otis Moss III, the young preacher who took over Trinity, UCC in Chicago from the embattled Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
They manifested what has become known as the Moses and Joshua generations. The senior Moss said he’d come about as far as he could go, and he had confidence in the junior Moss to take it from here. And the energetic junior Moss thanked his father for all the work he has done, including his participation with King 50 years ago, and assured him that he was ready to keep climbing.
This was only one highlight of the service that Bernice King said she wanted have in order to show that her father was a man led by his great faith and that this interfaith service was to honor him as a great spiritual leader, not just a civil rights leader.
And once at the Lincoln Memorial, her imprint on the program of speakers was clear. She noted in her stirring remarks that 50 years ago, no women spoke and that very few had a leadership role in its planning. Things were definitely different this year. Her aunt, Christine King Farris, the lone surviving sibling of MLK, gave a moving tribute to the principles of her brother. She also disclosed she wasn’t present 50 years ago due to a bout with the flu.
A friend’s aunt also wanted to march 50 years ago, but stayed home for a different reason. Her husband asked her to stay home with their eight-year-old daughter because of reports that there were fears that violence might break out among the throngs expected to gather. Of course, there was no violence on that day in 1963. It also has been reported that President John F. Kennedy was concerned about violence and was not in favor of the march.
Again, this year was completely different. Three Presidents showed up, including our current sitting President Barack Obama. He was really challenged to thread the needle of being the President, who happens to be black. But he did his usual eloquent job of noting that he was an embodiment of King’s dream as well as noting that more work needs to be done in the arena of social justice.
But I think it was our own President Jimmy Carter who made the strongest testimony about the impact of King on making his election possible and the challenge that we face as a nation and world today.
“Perhaps the most challenging statement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s was, and I quote,” Carter said, ‘The crucial question of our time is how to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.’ In the Nobel Prize ceremony of 2002, I said that my fellow Georgian was, and I quote again, ‘the greatest leader that my native state — and perhaps my native country — has ever produced.’ And I was not excluding presidents and even the Founding Fathers when I said this.”
Bernice also wanted to commemorate her father’s speech with a bell ringing ceremony to “let freedom ring.” As CEO of The King Center here in Atlanta, she sent out a request that bell ringing ceremonies be held around the nation at 3 p.m. on Aug. 28, the exact time of King’s speech.
At the Lincoln Memorial, she rang a bell members of her family, King compatriots Andy Young and Congressman John Lewis and Presidents Obama, Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Presidential daughters Caroline Kennedy and Linda Johnson Robb. It was not just any bell, but the old 16th Street Baptist Church bell, the only remains from the September 15, 1963 bombing in Birmingham, AL, which killed four young girls. Thanks to Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., Bernice and others, the bell made its way to this moving ceremony.
Echoing her mother from the 30th anniversary of the march, she said, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” And taking us forward, she said, “We are still crippled by practices and policies steeped in racial pride, hatred and hostility. Some of which have us standing our ground rather than finding common ground. We are still chained by economic disparities, income and class inequalities and conditions of poverty for many of God’s children around this nation and the world.
“We’ll still bound by a cycle of civil unrest and inherent social biases in our nation and world that oftentimes degenerates into violence and destruction especially against women and children,” she said. “We’re at this landing and now we must break the cycle. The Prophet King spoke the vision. He made it plain and we must run with it in this generation.”
Amen and bravo, Bernice!