ATLANTA (AP) – Americans observed civil rights leader 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 Democratic Congresswoman 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 Holder 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,'' Holder said.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle volunteered to paint for a service project at a middle school in Washington's Capitol Hill. He urged Americans to get out into their communities – a step he suggested would have special meaning following the shootings.
"After a painful week where so many of us were focused on the tragedy, it's good for us to remind ourselves of what this country is all about,'' he said.
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 African American 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 footsoldiers of the civil rights movement.
Two of the Kings' four children, Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Bernice King attended Monday's ceremony. Their brother, Dexter King, was unable to attend the service because he is recovering from injuries he received in a car crash last year. Yolanda King, the eldest of the King siblings, died in 2007. Bernice King is also president-elect of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which her father co-founded in 1957.
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,'' Lewis said.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer, called for members of Congress to show solidarity during the State of the Union Address this month. Quoting the Bible and Abraham Lincoln, Warnock said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.''
“Maybe after Arizona what our children need to see is us sitting together,'' Warnock 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 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.
In South Carolina, the day was an opportunity for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to underscore its opposition to a Confederate flag that flies outside the Statehouse. It was moved from atop the Capitol dome in 2000 after protests by the group.
"Take down that flag,'' North Carolina NAACP president, the Rev. William Barber, told the audience at a rally in Columbia. He argued the flag's presence disrespects people not only in South Carolina but across the nation. Critics say it represents slavery because it was flown by the southern rebel states in the Civil War.
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.
Photo: Martin Luther King Jr.