Image: Martin Luther King Holiday
Erik S. Lesser  /  EPA
Members of the King family, including Martin Luther King III, second from right, and his wife Arndrea, at right, with their daughter Yolanda Renee, lay a wreath at the tomb of slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King, Monday in Atlanta.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/17/2011 6:58:53 PM ET 2011-01-17T23:58:53

The U.S. holiday honoring slain black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. has taken on added meaning for most Americans this year, as they try to make sense of the violence in Arizona that left six people dead and a member of Congress fighting for her life.

Arizona once resisted the notion of a federal King holiday — and last year was the setting for a sharp-tongued debate on immigration. Now the southwestern state finds itself in search of solace after the Jan. 8 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and constituents meeting with her outside a supermarket in Tucson.

King's son, Martin Luther King III, head of The Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, said the Arizona tragedy is a grim reminder that the country has not yet achieved his father's dream of a peaceful society.

Image: Dr. Martin Luter King Jr.
AP
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during his "I Have a Dream" speech in Aug. 1963.

"When incidents occur like what we saw in Arizona, it shows us how much work we must do to create the kind of nation where nonviolence is embraced," King said.

That link was underlined when astronaut Mark Kelly, Rep. Giffords' husband, tweeted : "As my wonderful wife @Rep_Giffords continues to make progress, let us all pause and reflect on this MLK day."

This is the 25th federal observance of the birth of King, whose words were often met with hate and resistance during one of the nation's most turbulent and transformative eras. Today, King is one of the country's most celebrated citizens and the only one to be honored with a national holiday who did not serve as a U.S. president.

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President Barack Obama said part of King's legacy was about service and urged Americans to get out into their communities — a step he suggested would have special meaning following the Tucson rampage.

"After a painful week where so many of us were focused on the tragedy, it's good for us to remind ourselves of what this country is all about," he told reporters as he and first lady Michelle Obama took part in a painting project at a school in Washington.

National and local politicians joined members of the King family at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to mark what would have been the civil rights icon's 82nd birthday. Members of the King family also laid a wreath at the tombs of King and his widow, Coretta Scott King, on the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday established to honor the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Attorney General Eric Holder told the Ebenezer audience that the Arizona violence was a call to recommit itself to King's values of nonviolence, tolerance, compassion and justice.

Holder praised King as "our nation's greatest drum major of peace."

Story: Obamas travel to D.C. school for King holiday

"Last week a senseless rampage in Tucson reminded us that more than 40 years after Dr. King's own tragic death, our struggle to eradicate violence and to promote peace goes on," Holder said.

Calls for peace
Congressman John Lewis, who worked with King during the civil rights movement, issued a renewed call for Americans to unite in peace and love as King preached during his lifetime.

"If Dr. King could speak to us today, he would tell us that it does not matter how much we disapprove of another persons point of view, there is never a reason to deny another human being the respect he or she deserves," Lewis said.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer, called for members of Congress to show solidarity during the State of the Union Address this month. Quoting the Bible and Abraham Lincoln, Warnock said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

"Maybe after Arizona what our children need to see is us sitting together," Warnock said.

In Philadelphia, hundreds of volunteers including Mayor Michael Nutter helped refurbish computers for needy residents as part of the city's "day of service" events to mark the King holiday.

"The computer is your passport, not only to the future but to knowing what's going around you," Nutter said. The effort was part of the $25 million federally funded Freedom Rings Partnership, which aims to deliver 5,000 computers over the next few years to people in the city, where 41 percent of residents lack Internet access.

In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage changed plans and attended a memorial breakfast just days after saying critics of his decision to skip other King events could "kiss my butt."

LePage attended the breakfast in Waterville on Monday, just as he had done for several years as the city's mayor before being elected governor. His appearance was scheduled after he responded Friday to critics of his decision not to attend the state NAACP's annual holiday celebrations. His "kiss my butt" comment drew harsh criticism from state and national leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Coloradans marked the day with marches and parades in Denver and Greeley, and the National Western Stock Show was set to host its annual Martin Luther King Jr. African-American Heritage Rodeo on Monday evening.

America honors King's message
A sampling of celebrations elsewhere:

Dallas: Thousands of people lined the streets for Elite News MLK Parade and Fair Park Festival, which are used to inspire younger generations, NBC station KXAS reported. "MLK and our forefathers — they marched for us. They had water hoses sprayed at them. They had dogs running after them biting them. And so, if they can do all that for us, then I can stand here and march and do that for his legacy," Abeni Haynes, of the volunteer organization Phi Delta Kappa, said.

Buffalo: More than 300 AmeriCorp volunteers delivered and installed weatherization kits including insulation and window films to make homes more efficient while saving people money on energy bills. "Hopefully it will keep them warmer on the coldest day of the year so far," Mark Lazzara with AmeriCorp said. Two veterans each received a new furnace that the group installed. The Family 25 Inc. Group held its annual free basketball clinic for aspiring athletes.

Peoria, Ill.: AmeriCorps traveled from Chicago to play card games, make jewelry, and paint a mural for the "Community Unity" Program at the city's Community Workshop and Training Center.

Cincinnati: The 36th annual Commemorative Civil Rights March kicked off at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, followed by a march to Fountain Square for a prayer service. "All of us, are still on a journey, and like those who inspired us to be here today, we all know that we must pass the torch to yet another generation," Rabbi Gary Zola said.

Columbia, S.C.: Carrying signs that read "Don't stop until the flag drops" and "It's not about heritage," 1,000 people marched to the Capitol grounds to protest the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds. The march was organized on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to protest the continuing commemoration of the Confederate role in the Civil War. Organizers said it was also to protest the threat of state education budget cuts, a proposal for a state identification card and talk of stricter immigration laws in South Carolina.

Yakima, Wash:  More than 100 city and community leaders and families and students marched toward the Yakima Convention Center. Willette Cheatom, an event organizer, said the parade has grown with the city on working toward King's dream but they have yet to properly realize it. "We need to come together as a community to improve some of the aspects of some of the things that are going on around this town."

Albany, N.Y.: At St. Maximilian Kolbe's Soup Kitchen on Central Avenue in Albany, chief cook Dave Driggs was preparing trays of beef stew donated by The Sage Colleges as part of its Third Annual Day of Service. "People have to eat, they're hungry so we try to do what we can," Driggs said. Students lent a hand, from packing crackers to scrubbing dishes, rather than just sleeping in.

Las Vegas: Festive floats, marching bands, dancers and motorcades paraded down Fourth Street to the cheers of locals and tourists Monday, capping a week of commemorations, the Las Vegas Sun newspaper reported. “This day celebrates the fact that the grandchildren that Dr. King spoke about during the civil rights movement are able to live out his legacy,” said Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow. Earlier events included a youth talent show, interfaith service and an annual banquet.

Boise, Idaho: Idaho Human Rights Day supporters marched across the Capital Avenue bridge en route from Boise State University to Boise City Hall. At the Capitol, about 250 attending a Tea Party rally activists outside heard speakers slam Washington, D.C., urge a return to the gold standard and extol the virtues of "a Christian nation." About 300 inside listened to Mariachi bands, gospel singers and Holocaust survivor Rose Beal, who said, "this great country with all its opportunity never disappointed me" after her family died in concentration camps.

King assassinated in 1968

King has been recognized on the third Monday in January since 1986.

King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929, was killed at age 39. As a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, King led the 1955-56 bus boycott to protest racial segregation in public transportation that helped launch a widespread movement for civil rights. He led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1957 until his assassination in 1968 — adopting the civil disobedience tactics of India's Mohandas Gandhi to advance the cause of equal rights.

King now has been dead longer than he lived, and each commemoration adds more distance between his generation and those who came after and directly benefited from his life's work.

Many people on the celebrate King's life and struggle for human rights. Some choose to honor King by following his example of service to their fellow man. For others, the holiday is just an excuse for a long weekend, to take a short vacation or do nothing.

A national remembrance of the civil rights icon is an opportunity for the country to renew its commitment to King's cause. Absent that, it's unclear how his legacy would be remembered, said Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley.

"The holiday brought the freedom struggle into the main narrative," Brinkley said. "The day is meant to be a moment of reflection against racism, poverty and war. It's not just an African-American holiday. The idea of that day is to try to understand the experience of people who had to overcome racism but in the end are part and parcel of the American quilt."

An AP-GfK poll shows that Obama's term as the first black U.S. president has not shifted views on the nation's progress toward King's dream of racial equality. According to the poll, 77 percent feel there has been significant progress toward King's dream — about the same percentage as found by a 2006 AP-Ipsos poll (75 percent).

Overall, 30 percent of those interviewed for the AP-GfK poll say they will do something to commemorate the King holiday this year, up from 23 percent in 2006. About three in four respondents said King is deserving of a national holiday.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: Remembering MLK, Jr. – 25 years later

Photos: Martin Luther King Jr.

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