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War in Gaza, US election are impacting events planned for MLK holiday

Monday also marks 100 days since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel that killed some 1,200 and led to roughly 240 being taken hostage.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with the Washington Monument in the background.
Posted at 3:46 PM, Jan 14, 2024

As communities nationwide celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this weekend with events ranging from parades to prayer services, some people are taking a cue from the slain civil rights icon's history of protest to demonstrate against the war in Gaza and draw attention to the looming U.S. presidential election.

The Monday holiday also marks 100 days since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched an attack in southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people and resulted in about 240 taken hostage. Since then, more than 100 Israelis remain kidnapped and more than 23,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's bombardment of Gaza, as global health organizations have warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis there.

Perhaps the biggest organized event of the weekend in the U.S. was held in the nation’s capital Saturday — the March on Washington for Gaza, co-hosted by the American Muslim Task Force on Palestine, comprising some of the largest Muslim organizations in the U.S., along with antiwar and racial justice groups.

Thousands of people rallied near the White House to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza, with some holding signs questioning President Joe Biden's viability as a presidential candidate because of his staunch support for Israel in the war against Hamas.

March organizers called on Biden to demand a permanent cease-fire and an end to the violence against civilians in Gaza and the West Bank. They also called for the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian political prisoners and an end to "American unconditional financial support for the Israeli military," according to Edward Ahmed Mitchell, AMTP media coordinator and deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

A similar demonstration held in November, the National March on Washington: Free Palestine, drew tens of thousands of participants from around the country. Some estimates suggested at least 100,000 attended.

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The title of Saturday's march evoked the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, at which King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That history, as well as King's vocal opposition to the U.S. role in the Vietnam War toward the end of his life, was a guiding factor for the organizers.

Mitchell, who called King's legacy "multifaceted," said King spoke up even if it meant getting vilified.

"He was considered un-American and called a traitor. Even the political establishment shunned him," Mitchell said.

In 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, King delivered his famous "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" speech at Riverside Church in New York City. After quietly opposing the Vietnam War for years, he took the public step to condemn it, connecting racial and economic inequality in the U.S. with increased military spending abroad.

"I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such," King said in his speech.

King's daughter, Bernice King, has said her father was against antisemitism and also would have opposed the bombing of Gaza. The taking of lives through retaliatory violence is not the strategy he would want to see today.

“There is an opportunity for us to have a real breakthrough and get to some genuine conversations and actions that can allow people to co-exist in an area of the world,” Bernice King said in a recent interview from The King Center in Atlanta, where she is CEO.

She believes protests are critical in difficult times. King just hopes that people in general use nonviolent words and actions if they invoke her father's name.

"My father had a certain manner, tone and tenor in his protest. You know, your language, your speech has to be in line, not just the physical acts," she said. "But if your language is violent, that is not necessarily in sync with Dr. King."

The center also will hold a holiday commemorative service Monday at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late civil rights icon served as pastor.

Observed federally since 1986, the holiday occurs on the third Monday of January, which this year happens to be the Rev. King's actual birthday. Born in 1929, the minister would have been 95. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and King's Nobel Peace Prize.

Prominent Democrats will be commemorating the holiday in South Carolina, now the first state in the Democratic Party's reshuffled presidential primary schedule.

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The NAACP is hosting Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black person to hold the office, at the State House in Columbia. Harris visited the city in November to officially file paperwork putting Biden on the presidential ballot. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, the first Black leader of a party in Congress, will speak at an interfaith prayer service. The day's events will center on a theme of “Ballots for Freedom, Ballots for Justice, Ballots for Change!”

For many, the holiday will be an opportunity to counter the recent backlash over efforts at companies and universities to implement diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, will announce Monday a national campaign to sustain DEI measures. This comes after he led a demonstration against last week's resignation of Claudine Gay, Harvard University's first Black president. Sharpton will also be hosting the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast. Members of King's family will be in attendance.

Giving back is also an intrinsic part of the MLK holiday. AmeriCorps will host its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of National Service. The government agency is working with the King Center and several charities, faith-based organizations and businesses on community service projects. Various cities and organizations are holding their own volunteer events such as neighborhood clean-ups, food drives and packing care kits for the unhoused.

On the actual holiday, events will go beyond just Washington and Atlanta, King's birthplace. Some will touch on the war in Gaza.

Detroit will hold its 21st annual MLK Day Rally & March. The speakers' list includes Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who was censured for rhetoric over the Israel-Hamas war, and Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers president who led negotiations during six weeks of strikes.

There will also be plenty of opportunities to attend events after the holiday is over. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation will hold its eighth annual National Day of Racial Healing on Tuesday. It has partnered with nonprofits, schools and communities to hold over 200 events nationwide. These include "sing-ins" of Civil Rights era songs and neighborhood dialogues.

The hope is "challenging the attitudes and assumptions that people hold about folks who are different from themselves," said Alandra Washington, the foundation's vice president for transformation and organizational effectiveness.

"Even a conversation can make a difference in the lives of others," she said.