ATLANTA—The youngest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hailed the inauguration of the nation’s first black president to a new term as one of the achievements made possible by the civil rights struggle her father helped lead decades ago.
Bernice King spoke at an Atlanta service Monday on the federal King holiday, urging Americans to draw inspiration from her slain father’s nonviolent campaign after a difficult year of military conflicts abroad and natural disasters at home.
“We pray that this day will be the beginning of a new day in America,” she said. “It will be a day when people draw inspiration from the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It will be a day when people realize and recognize that if it were not for Dr. King and those who fought the fight fought in that movement, we would not be celebrating this presidency.”
Monday’s King holiday—marked by parades, rallies and service projects around the nation—coincided with celebrations of President Barack Obama’s inauguration to a second term in Washington. Many paused to take stock of the progress made by the country since the 1960s fight to end racial segregation—and of challenges ahead as Obama assumed a second term.
In Washington, Obama spoke proudly of having taken the oath of office using a Bible that had been owned by King. It was one of two he used for the ceremonial inauguration Monday, watched by hundreds of thousands.
“I had the great privilege that the Bible we used was his Bible and they asked for it to be inscribed,” Obama said after the ceremony. The other Bible belonged to President Abraham Lincoln.
Dozens in the crowd thronging outside the U.S. Capitol to see Obama sworn in stopped first outside the King Memorial for photographs.
Across the nation, many Americans paused to reflect on King and the changes wrought in the nation since the civil rights era.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley called the King celebration in that state “a great day for America.”
Hundreds of people rallied in Montgomery, Ala., not far from where King spoke at the end of a march in 1965 between the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery against the racial segregation once prevalent across the South.
An Alabama state representative, Thad McClammy, said King’s speech there in 1965 was one of the first steps in a nonviolent campaign that opened the way for new opportunities for minorities.
“It paved the way all the way from Selma to Montgomery to Washington, D.C.,” said McClammy, referring to Obama’s inauguration.
Parades and rallies were held across many states to salute the slain civil rights leader.
Chief among them was the 45th annual service for the civil rights leader at the Atlanta church where King was pastor.
There, Bernice King stressed her father’s commitment to nonviolence, saying that after the 1956 bombing of the family’s home in Montgomery, Ala., her father stood on the porch and urged an angry, armed crowd to fight with Christian love—not guns.
“This apostle of nonviolence perhaps introduced one of the bravest experiences of gun control that we’ve ever heard of in the history of our nation,” she said.
The keynote speaker was the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a socially conservative evangelical association. It marked the first time a Latino had been invited to deliver the King Day address at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He urged those listening to complete King’s dream.
“Silence is not an option when 30 million of our brothers and sisters live in poverty,” he said. “Silence is not an option when 11 million undocumented individuals continue to live in the shadows.”
The Atlanta service kicked off a year of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington. Students led by King’s great-niece Farris Christine Watkins delivered sections of the speech in turn.
By the end, the crowd was on its feet, shouting “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Afterward many stayed to watch Obama’s second inauguration on a big-screen TV.
In Columbia, S.C., civil rights leaders paused during their annual King Day rally to watch the inauguration on a big screen.
“You feel like anything is possible,” Jelin Cunningham, a 15-year-old girl, said of Obama’s presidency.
Elsewhere, visitors thronged the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., the city where King was assassinated in 1968. In Detroit, students beautified schools. Others painted murals honoring King in Arkansas, donated food bank items in Texas, and conducted a community health fair in Pennsylvania.