Martin Luther King Jr Day renews push to tackle racial injustice

US federal holiday honouring slain civil rights leader comes amid rising fears over hate crimes, curbs to voting access.

A large group gathers to watch a wreath-laying ceremony at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington, DC, the United States [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

The United States is marking what would have been Martin Luther King Jr‘s 94th birthday, with advocates urging the country to commemorate the assassinated civil rights leader’s legacy by truly tackling racial injustice.

Monday’s federal holiday – Martin Luther King Jr Day – comes nearly 55 years after the April 1968 killing of King, who led a non-violent movement pushing for equality for Black Americans throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

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The US civil rights movement, buoyed by King and other leaders, led to the end of blatantly discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the country’s south, while spurring several landmark pieces of legislation.

These included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation and banned workplace discrimination, as well as 1965’s Voting Rights Act, which sought to end discrimination at the polls.

Reverend William Barber, a prominent social justice activist who gave the sermon at the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden, said Monday’s holiday should not be marked solely by commemorations, however.

“We don’t need museums, but movements,” Barber tweeted. “Not commemorations, but consecrations to dedicate our lives to the unfinished business of MLK & so many others who loved justice.”

King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, also urged Americans to be proactive in how they honoured her father on Monday.

“Determine how you’ll disrupt unjust systems & thinking with nonviolent strategy. Support policies that reflect higher consciousness. Make no excuses for hate,” she wrote on Twitter.

This year’s Martin Luther King Jr Day comes amid growing concerns in the US over white nationalist rhetoric and violence targeting Black people as well as members of the LGBTQ community.

A flurry of US state laws restricting access to voting also has prompted calls for action in recent months, with advocates saying the measures most adversely affect racial minorities and marginalised communities.

The efforts have been fuelled by former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was marred by widespread fraud.

The issue of voting rights has been a dominant theme of Martin Luther King Jr Day events on Monday, Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna reported from Washington, DC, as Biden held a prayer brunch with members of the King family and met with political figures and civil rights activists.

“Discussion there will be on the issue of voting rights and there will be pressure on President Biden to introduce or push through new voting rights legislation to ensure that the maximum amount of people within the US get a vote,” Hanna said.

“This is an occasion of which [King’s] legacy is remembered,” he added. “But importantly, it’s also an occasion on which it is remembered what work still needs to be done.”

Meanwhile, Biden became the first sitting president to deliver a Sunday morning sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where King served as co-pastor from 1960 until his killing in 1968.

“He said, ‘Where do we go from here?'” Biden said on Sunday from the church pulpit, referring to King.

“Well, my message to this nation on this day is we go forward, we go together, when we choose democracy over autocracy, a beloved community over chaos, when we choose believers and the dreams, to be doers, to be unafraid, always keeping the faith.”

Biden also delivered an address on Monday at a National Action Network (NAN) breakfast in the US capital, where he focused on his efforts to boost the economy.

The speeches come at a politically delicate time for the president, whose 2020 election victory relied heavily on Black voters, particularly in the swing state of Georgia.

Biden also spoke days after US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of a special counsel to investigate classified documents found at his former office and home.

Biden, who is expected to announce his run for re-election in the coming weeks, on Monday touted an array of efforts taken by his administration in support of racial justice, including supporting police reform and promoting more equality in housing and public works projects.

He also showcased his administration’s push to diversify the federal judiciary, including through the appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.

The president also called for the passage of new federal voting right protections, something he failed to achieve during his first two years in office. Similar legislation now faces an uphill battle in the US House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a majority.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies