Atlanta, Georgia, US

Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King, Jr, delivering jobs and justice and protecting "the sacred right to vote, a right from which all other rights flow,” President Joe Biden said Monday. 

Martin Luther King Day is a moment when a mirror is held up to America, the President said in a video address. 

“It’s time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand," Biden said. “It’s time for every American to stand up. Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand?”

US Washington Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

In a long exposure photo, lights from a snowplow illuminate sleet at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington, on Sunday, 16th January. Ceremonies scheduled for the site on Monday, to mark the Martin Luther King Jr national holiday, have been cancelled because of the weather. PICTURE: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.

Major holiday events included marches in several cities and the annual Martin Luther King Jr service at the slain civil rights leader's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where US Senator Raphael Warnock is the senior pastor. Pews have been packed by politicians in past years, but given the pandemic, many offered pre-recorded speeches instead. 

This holiday marks what would have been the 93rd birthday of Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, who was just 39 when he was assassinated in 1968 while helping sanitation workers strike for better pay and workplace safety in Memphis, Tennessee. 

King's eldest son criticised Biden and Congress as a whole on Monday for failing to pass voting rights legislation, even as 19 Republican-led states have made it harder to vote in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims about election-rigging.

“You were successful with infrastructure, which is a great thing - but we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the same unencumbered right to vote,” Martin Luther King III said.

Senate Republicans remain unified in opposition to the Democrats’ voting bills. Biden described their stonewalling as part of “a true attack on our democracy, from the 6th January insurrection to the onslaught of Republican anti-voting laws in an number of states.”

“It’s no longer just about who gets to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote. And whether your vote counts at all. It’s about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion,” Biden said.

Vice President Kamala Harris sent a to the Ebenezer service, saying that “in Georgia and across our nation, anti-voter laws are being passed that could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote...that is one out of six people in our country.” 

“We know that this assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American, in every community, in every political party,” she said. 

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate's only Black Republican, countered with a series of King Day-themed videos he said would emphasise positive developments on civil rights. Scott sidestepped criticism about GOP actions and accused Democrats of labeling his party members as racists.

“To compare or conflate people who oppose his positions as being racists and traitors to the country is not only insulting and infuriating, it’s dead wrong,” Scott told The Associated Press.

US Atlanta Martin Luther King Jr birthplace

Flowers lay in front of the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, on 18th January, 2021, in Atlanta. PICTURE: AP Photo/Branden Camp/File photo.

Warnock, now running for re-election as Georgia's first Black senator, said in his speech to the sparse crowd at Ebenezer that “everybody loves Dr King, they just don’t always love what he represents."

“Let the word go forth, you can not remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time,” Warnock said. “If you will speak his name you have to stand up for voting rights, you have to stand up on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and the disenfranchised.”

King, who delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech while leading the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, considered racial equality inseparable from alleviating poverty and stopping war. His insistence on nonviolent protest continues to influence activists pushing for civil rights and social change. 

The US economy “has never worked fairly for Black Americans - or, really, for any American of color,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech delivered Monday, one of many by national leaders acknowledging unmet needs for racial equality on Martin Luther King Day. 

Yellen referred to King’s famous speech in remarks she recorded for delivery at Rev Al Sharpton’s National Action Network breakfast in Washington, noting the financial metaphor he used when describing the founding fathers’ promises of equality.

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King said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that “America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.” He called it ”a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt!” 

“It is compelling rhetoric, but I also think Dr King knew it was a more than a metaphor. He knew that economic injustice was bound up in the larger injustice he fought against. From Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans – or, really, for any American of color,” Yellen said.

She said the Biden administration has sought to ensure that no economic institution fails to work for people of color, building equity into the American Rescue Plan and injecting $US9 billion into community and minority-run financial institutions poorly served by Wall Street. 

Former President Barack Obama shared a picture of King's granddaughter Yolanda admiring a bust of the civil rights leader he kept in the Oval Office. “The fight for voting rights takes perseverance,” Obama tweeted. “As Dr King said, ‘There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions. We must keep going.’ May we honor his memory through action forged in faith.”

US Washington Martin Luther King Jr Memorial President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stand together at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial as they arrive to attend an event marking the 10th anniversary of the dedication of memorial in Washington, on 21st October, 2021. PICTURE: AP Photo/Susan Walsh/File photo.

King “saw a great injustice in his world and fought to right that wrong,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said in a recorded message played at Ebenezer. “His methods ultimately led to success and showed all of us that taking the high road is the best path to achieving lasting change."

Democrat Stacey Abrams, now trying again to defeat Kemp as he seeks reelection, tweeted that King's call remains clear: “Deliver justice for the poor, protect those targeted by hate, defend the freedom to vote, and demand that our leaders fight current malice as the best bulwark against future harm.”