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Observances of King's Birthday Led by His Son

January 19, 1988|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Americans marked the third annual national observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on Monday with parades, prayer services, marches and the pealing of bells.

Public officials, preachers and civil rights leaders joined with thousands of ordinary citizens--black and white--to honor the martyred Atlanta minister and to call for a renewed commitment to King's dream of freedom and justice for all.

"Daddy, we've come a long, long way," King's son, Martin Luther King III, said in a moving tribute at an ecumenical service in Atlanta, focal point of the nationwide holiday activities, "but we've still got a long, long way to go."

The King holiday celebration here was launched with a traditional wreath-laying ceremony at King's white-marble crypt, set in a reflecting pool next door to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once served as co-pastor with his father.

King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was accompanied by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young for the placing of the wreath of yellow and white mums at King's tomb. Young, a former King lieutenant, also offered a brief prayer.

Mrs. King presided over the ecumenical service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her son spoke. Among those attending were Democratic presidential contenders Jesse Jackson and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris and civil rights activist Dick Gregory.

Several prominent Republicans also attended, including Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr.

'We Must Choose'

In remarks that brought him a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, Weicker called for action to reverse what he described as the steady dismantling in recent years of civil rights gains. "We must choose and act, and the time to do that is now, when we leave this church," he said.

The Atlanta activities ended with an afternoon parade along downtown Peachtree Street. Although misty, drizzly weather held down the number of spectators, it did not dampen their enthusiasm.

"I'm excited to be here," said Ronnie Sparra of Lawrenceville, N.J., who was here to visit her son and was among the many white spectators who lined the streets along with blacks. "I have great admiration for Martin Luther King's beliefs, what he stands for, his nonviolence. I believe it is catching on."

Presidential Contenders

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), a presidential contender, took part in the parade, while former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination, attended a King holiday celebration at an American Legion post in Albany, Ga. In Iowa, Vice President George Bush, seeking the GOP nomination, joined 200 children for a King ceremony at a Des Moines grade school.

In Phoenix, about 4,000 people marched in heavy rain and cold winds through downtown to the state Capitol to honor King and to protest against Gov. Evan Mecham, whose recision of a holiday for King sparked his political troubles and a recall effort. Marchers carrying signs saying "Remember Martin Luther King--To Jail With Mecham" and "Mecham for Ex-Governor" called for re-establishment of a King holiday.

Arizona is among seven states that are without a state holiday dedicated to King. The others are Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming. All seven are states with relatively small black populations.

Lengthy Struggle

The federal holiday--which applies only to federal workers and the District of Columbia--was signed into law by President Reagan in 1983 after a bitter and lengthy struggle and was first celebrated in 1986.

By law, it is held on the third Monday in January. King actually was born on Jan. 15 and would have been 59 this year. He was killed by a sniper's bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to lead a demonstration of striking garbage workers.

In New York City, excerpts from King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington demonstration echoed throughout cavernous Grand Central Terminal. Pinstripe-clad executives stood silently beside homeless Manhattanites, gazing up at a screen displaying a documentary of King's life.

During the noon hour, about 300 demonstrators marched peacefully across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall Park and joined with more than 1,200 other protesters outside Mayor Edward I. Koch's office.

'Painful Reality'

"New Yorkers must come to grips with the painful reality that racism is alive and present in this town," Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the crowd.

The rally brought a massive police presence to Lower Manhattan.

Meanwhile, in the city's predominantly black Harlem neighborhood, Koch fought to overcome the jeers of about a dozen hecklers when he addressed about 1,000 persons at a memorial service at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church.

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