ATLANTA — With festive parades, solemn vigils, passionate speeches and a glittering musical extravaganza, the United States on Monday marked the first national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the martyred civil rights leader whose dream of freedom and justice has inspired millions of Americans.
Vice President George Bush flew to Atlanta, King's birthplace and the focal point of the nationwide holiday activities, for a wreath-laying ceremony at King's white-marble tomb and an ecumenical service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once served as co-pastor.
'Love Has Overcome'
"In his lifetime, many criticized Martin Luther King's dedication to nonviolence," Bush said. "They said it won't work, they said it was impractical. Well, I say that America today bears witness that Dr. King's faith in America was true faith. Love has overcome hate."
During the interfaith service, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu--like King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner--was awarded the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize by King's widow, Coretta.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 22, 1986 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Stevie Wonder was the host of the televised musical celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and chairman of the entertainment committee of the federal holiday commission which oversaw preparations for the nationwide birthday observance. A Times story Tuesday reported only that he was a guest on the television show.
"I tremble as I stand in the shadow of this great person," Tutu said as he received the gold medal bearing King's likeness. Tutu added that he accepted the award on behalf of his fellow black South Africans, who he said are "peace-loving to a fault" in their struggle against apartheid.
Black Cabinet Member
Among the dignitaries at Ebenezer Baptist were Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, President Reagan's only black Cabinet member; Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), both members of the federal commission overseeing preparations for the national holiday activities; Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
In Montgomery, Ala., where King first rose to national prominence as leader of an anti-segregation bus boycott in 1955, hundreds of blacks stood on the steps of the state Capitol where Gov. George C. Wallace had once declared "segregation now, segregation forever" to hear the governor's proclamation honoring King.
Wallace, who was recently released from a hospital, was not present at the ceremony nor were any other state officials. The governor's proclamation was read by his press secretary, Billy Joe Camp.
In Birmingham, Ala., a seven-foot statue of King was unveiled in a park. In the early 1960s, King led a series of demonstrations in the city in the face of fire hoses and police dogs and was once arrested and jailed. The Birmingham protests were a major impetus behind passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Vigil at Motel
In Memphis, Tenn., a vigil was held at the Lorraine Motel, where the charismatic leader was cut down by a sniper's bullet on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony. King had gone to Memphis to lead a demonstration of striking garbage workers.
Under a law enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan three years ago, the third Monday of January is set aside as a federal holiday to honor King's birthday, which actually is Jan. 15.
King's birthday is also a legal holiday in about 30 states, including three that also honor Confederate generals.
The first official observance of King's birthday was not total. All federal offices and many state offices and schools were closed and mail not delivered, but most major businesses, including the stock exchanges, remained open. Many cities reported light traffic, but otherwise business as usual, except for Washington, where work came to a halt.
Students Stay Home
In Louisiana, all 485 students at a black high school in Plaquemines Parish stayed home to protest the school board's refusal to recognize the holiday.
"No one showed up this morning. No one but the teachers," said James Jones, assistant principal at Phoenix High School.
"I feel it was justified," Jones added. "This is a totally black school."
Parades and gatherings honoring King were held in Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and several other cities, but Atlanta was the scene of perhaps the most spectacular observance.
Under clear skies and a bright sun, hundreds of exuberant marchers, scores of blaring bands and snappy drill teams and floats streamed along downtown Peachtree Street.
300,000 Jam Streets
March organizers estimated that more than 300,000 spectators, most of them black, jammed the streets to watch the parade. In some places they were more than 12 to 15 people deep.
"I think it's beautiful," said Janice Harvey of Atlanta, who accompanied her 4-year-old son, Leonardo. "There's so much happiness and love here. It's really in the spirit of Martin Luther King."
But Bernard Martin, a 32-year-old black Atlantan, said he thought that the parade had "too much hoopla" and was not in keeping with the spirit of King's philosophy.
"We don't need a parade," he said. "We need a march--a march for the man's dream. We should be marching for freedom, for justice, for the oppressed blacks in South Africa."